I can pinpoint the exact moment my inner rebel was born. I was seven, standing chin-high to the kitchen counter at my best friend, S’s house, just across the bridge from mine. We were stirring a couple glasses of Tang. It was the dog days of summer and school would be starting soon; we were dreading it. Our fathers were close friends, carpenters who worked together at a local cabinetry shop, until they got laid off and her dad opened his own spot out back and hired mine to make custom kitchens with him.
She and I never saw each other in school because we were two years apart, but we spent most every day playing in that woodshop or down in the creek under the bridge, or gallivanting through the cow and horse fields that ran along the dirt roads that set the perimeters of our world. Our childhood seemed idyllic; we were either barefoot or bareback – rock-hopping in the shallow water or riding horses over stone walls and rolling hills, nobody needing to know where we were. Barbed wire fences were only to keep the animals in, not to keep us out. We wandered at will. We felt safe.
While we quenched our thirst with sugar water that evoked moon landings and astronauts, her father was pouring a drink of his own: Canadian Club over ice. I remember because just as often he’d ask us to make him one. It’s not surprising that I grew up to be a bartender; all the adults around me drank. It was the 70’s, with its long gas lines, disgraced presidency, rampant unemployment, and endless Vietnam War. Booze and despair were the norm. My parents would eventually split two years later, and hers a few after that, but nothing seemed to touch the sky inside our heads. We roamed the geography of fantasy and innocence, conjuring up perfect families and grand adventures. The fields and woods and dirt roads were ours – deeds and fences meant nothing as we picked berries, caught crayfish, built forts and concocted mischievious schemes. The world of grown ups was crashing all around and we would be found squatting creekside, merrily rearranging the rocks and changing the current’s direction, even if only temporarily.
He was a huge man, her father, towering over our skinny little frames, and when he turned to us that day in the kitchen and said listen up, girls, we obeyed. You girls better enjoy yourselves now, because THESE are the best days of your lives. Believe me when I tell you, he said with both authority and resignation.
I remember thinking NO. I don’t believe you. The rest of my life would only become worse? That didn’t sound very nice. And it made no sense. At all.
I never forgot his warning though and as I grew into my teen years, I had to find out for myself, because I couldn’t just accept what he said, and I couldn’t just accept the opposite either. Relentlessly I questioned people’s beliefs, their actions, their thought processes. I almost always took an opposing stance, in order to dig down and see if what someone offered up as definitive held water, if they could back up their perspective with something I could trust, that I could lay my hands on. Rarely was I presented with solidity, rather what I learned was that most of us walk around with beliefs that others give us. Money corrupts, evolution is true, wait no – we were created in god’s image, you have to work hard, go to college, get married. A woman’s destiny lies in motherhood, America is number one, your doctor knows best, life sucks and then you die – it’s ridiculous all we accept without question.
I eventually traveled up the river into my own heart of darkness and when I finally emerged from that troubled and hopeless journey, wrestling in muck and mire my own demons, I was in my late twenties. All those dank, briary monsters? I finally saw them as angels. I wonder if he ever did.
Even now, I don’t settle for conventional wisdom. I don’t conform to someone else’s idea of how I should live. But I’ve watched the tide turn over the years. People used to ask me when I was going get my degree, a real job, a credit card, or settle down. I had no checking account and no debt, and no reasoning on their end was going to convince me to change, just because that’s how it’s done. Never mind that I was making more money than they and taking off a couple or three months a year to travel the globe. I wasn’t living beyond my means. If someone needed me, I could be there for them. I wasn’t a slave to my job or its paycheck. Now people say they wish they had my life, that it ‘must be nice’ to be in my shoes. Well, guess what? It is. However, swimming against the tide wasn’t easy. Truth is notoriously shifty. People don’t like to be questioned, don’t like you exposing their emperor’s clothing. And those monsters I encountered were downright scary, just as his must have been.
And so now, this is what I believe – THESE are the best days of my life – every single one of them.