Here’s our topic sentence for today:
Now we are truly adult, we think, stunned that this is what being adult means, nothing at all like what we thought it meant as children, certainly not self-confidence, certainly not a serene mastery over all worldly things.
This sentence comes as a part of Natalia Ginzburg’s startling and lovely essay collection A Place to Live, from an essay called “Human Relations”. Ginzburg was an Italian novelist and essayist who lived through World War II (her husband Leone was tortured and killed for their opposition to fascism).
This essay traces nothing less than what it is to be human and in relationship with family, a tracing of the internal path from the ignorance of childhood, the spitefulness of adolescence, the jockeying of teenage years, the stirring of early romance, the revelations of parenthood. Through it all, Ginzburg has a acute knack of capturing both the specificity of her experience, and the universality of her inner feeling. I’ve never been a small girl in Italy growing up in the 1930’s; and yet, of course, I have:
We might be absorbed in some game all by ourselves, and with no warning, angry voices rip through the house; mechanically, we go on playing, sticking stones and grass into a little pile of dirt to make a hill, but the hill doesn’t really matter anymore, we can’t be happy until peace returns to the house; doors slam and we jump; furious words fly from room to room, incomprehensible words; we don’t seek to understand them or decipher what murky reasons give rise to them; in our bewilderment we assume they must be dreadful reasons.
What Ginzburg captures with cool precision in the phrases of our topic sentence is the yawning gap between what we think it will be to be an adult, and the stark reality of it. For Ginzburg, of course, this meant in part the horror of the war. For us, I suspect it is the encroaching solidity of death in any of its forms.
This gap between our childhood perception of adulthood and the concrete actuality of adulthood is something that we can struggle with all of our lives. Some never get over it.
A small example: we recently bought a house—a miracle in itself! But again, the gap. The perception that a house of our own will be a step toward adulthood, a shelter, a respite from uncertainty. The reality: the attendant troubles, concerns over furniture and taxes and thus the reality of adulthood: “certainly not a serene mastery over all worldly things”.
How we want to be as adults is always an illusion. The correct reply to “I don’t feel like an adult” is “How is an adult supposed to feel?”, to which there is no answer. It’s the perception that applies, the difference between how we saw adults from a childlike lens, to how we perceive ourselves in all our terrible mundanity.
We can step over this gap, Ginzburg says, in part by acceptance over death and thus, life—life!:
We are adult by virtue of that brief moment when we looked at life head-on, when we looked at all the things of this world as if for the last time and renounced them for good, restoring them to the will of God. And suddenly all the things of this world, including human beings, appeared in their just and proper proportions under heaven, while we ourselves stood suspended, regarding it all from the single proper place accorded to us.
With both regards, and regarding,