Every weekend, I'm hosting a homeculture book club. I'll write about one book from my bookshop and ask for your thoughts at the end of the piece. When you share your thoughts, you enter to win a copy of the book. The only thing missing is a table full of book club snacks. I miss the fancy cheese and crackers too. I'll see what I can do in the future.
This week, we're talking about An Ordinary Age by Rainesford Stauffer, a book that "examines our obsessive need to live and post our #bestlife, and the culture that has defined that life on narrow, and often unattainable, terms."
When I was a kid I thought I had to grow up to be extraordinary. Wait. Maybe that phrasing is wrong?
Really, I thought I was meant to grow up and become extraordinary. Which is something apart from had to, isn’t it? Had to implies pressure, but also the possibility of failure. Meant to is a thing of destiny. I was born to be great and so I would be.
Raised in a culture veined with the fool’s gold of American Exceptionalism, I thought I had to be exceptional.
Why did I feel this way? Raised in a culture veined with the fool’s gold of American Exceptionalism, I thought I had to be exceptional. A country that is exceptional produces exceptional people, right? There were other factors. I was raised in a faith tradition that talked a lot our innate divine nature. If I was inherently divine, that meant something extraordinary waited for me, surely. It wasn’t just American Exceptionalism or Sunday school lessons. It was also the elementary school idea that I could become anything, and that anything could be, should be extraordinary.
All the kids around me were going to be extraordinary too.
When a teacher wanted to get to know us, they’d ask us to draw a picture of what we wanted to be when we grew up. All the kids around me were going to be extraordinary too. They drew themselves as astronauts, pirates and olympic athletes. I always drew myself as an author receiving an award. As I got a little older the picture sometimes had Author Meg talking to Carolyn Keene, my favorite author in elementary school. (Did anyone else gasp when horror as a kid when they realized Carolyn Keene DID NOT EXIST? That was a rough day for elementary Meg.) No one in the fourth grade ever drew themselves as a person working in a community garden, or a social worker or one of the mostly unknown scientists who would work for twenty years to develop technology for a vaccine that might be needed someday.
Eventually, teachers stopped asking us to draw those pictures. I think we were supposed to age into the understanding that we’d grown into a reality where some of us would become astronauts , sure. But most of us would become customer service representatives, dental hygienists and teachers who ask kids what they want to be when they grow up. We would find the meaning in our lives in our jobs, sometimes. But it would mostly exist around crowded dinner tables, walks before work, a sunset watched from apartment building steps. I didn’t age into that understanding. I should have.
The people who were extraordinary to me as a child lived fairly ordinary lives.
The people who were extraordinary to me as a child lived fairly ordinary lives. I didn’t know one person who’d come close to touching the stars, literally or figuratively. My dad owned an insurance brokerage for small businesses. My mom was a full-time caretaker. The various adults who took interest in me did the kind of work that was never done, a nurse, a housekeeper. I understood the value of their work but I did not think it was my work. It didn't occur to me that making my work the thing that I "became" was a problem. I'd already been drawing pictures of myself becoming something special for too long.
Undiagnosed ADHD and an undiagnosed anxiety disorder attended high school with me. I silently flailed. At the beginning of each new school year, I promised myself that this time it would be different. I would do well, I would keep up, I would move forward. It was never different. I shoved my barely passing grades in the back of a drawer and kept that picture of what I would be when I grew up in my head. I was still going to be an author, I would still be in the company of writers I loved. I decided the picture wasn’t the problem. The place was. I just needed to get through high school. It would all work out once I left home.
And then. It didn’t.
greatness wasn’t just out of my reach, functionality was too
When I got to college, I still had undiagnosed anxiety and ADHD. And so greatness wasn’t just out of my reach, functionality was too. Some classes I attended and passed. Others I - didn’t. When my mom got my first report card from my first semester, she called me, furious. What the hell happened? It was a good question. Fair. And I didn’t have an answer. This was the part I was meant to do. What the hell happened? I felt betrayed by myself, of course. But I also felt like I’d fallen out of the narrative I’d always been told would move me forward.
You know, the one where you grow up, leave your home and your hometown, go to college and become what you were meant to become. In this narrative, your twenties are the years that set you up for every year to follow. Once I found myself scrubbed from the lines of that particular story, I didn’t know what to with myself. I dropped out. And then I spent years trying to figure out how to create a new picture in my head.
I left college in 2006, but young adults are still being failed by that same narrative. Rainesford Stauffer, a journalist from Kentucky, also fell out of the storyline she'd been given. But when she fell out of one old narrative, she decided to write a new one. Her book, An Ordinary Age, is an invitation to meaning. Esquire describes it perfectly,
From chronic burnout to the loneliness epidemic to the strictures of social media, An Ordinary Age leads with empathy in exploring the myriad challenges facing young adults, while also advocating for a better path forward: one where young people can live authentic lives filled with love, community, and self-knowledge.
“The stories of young adulthood in this book won’t capture every lived experience, but my hope is that the narratives shared in it remind us that we aren’t in it alone, and reminds you that you’re good enough — right now, as is. Not your best self, not your future self: Your ordinary self, right now.”
Your ordinary self, right now.
I am in my 30s and so this book spoke to me in two directions. I wish I could hold passages of the book up to my past eyes, so they could see by a better light of Stauffer's writing. Instead, this book bestows the next best thing. I am able to see myself in my twenties with more gentleness because of Stauffer.
I am able to see myself in my twenties with more gentleness because of Stauffer.
When Stauffer writes about home, I recognize the way I felt about home as a young adult. I am also moved to look around the home where I am raising soon to be young adults.
“Home” is writing these words at the long kitchen table that my grandfather built as a gift for my mother a few years ago. It’s the smell of my mom’s lemon cake and coffee wafting through the house and the cat running down the hallway; the neighbors I used to see every year at our childhood street-wide chili potlucks on Halloween, and family friends always offering to help in the face of struggle or loss; how I’ll always get the key stuck in the front door, no matter many times I’ve unlocked it. That’s how I think of it now. But for the majority of the time I spent growing up there, I thought of “home” as a waiting room, the place I had to be until I could go somewhere else.”
When home is a place you are always seeking - after undergrad, after grad school, after a promotion, returning home is a “glitch in the timeline of young adult milestones.” Whenever I heard a friend of mine went home after leaving home, I always felt a pang of secondhand shame. Why? I was a young adult who should have gone back home to gather myself up after the first year of college. But I didn’t. It felt like an admission of failure. It seemed better to actually fail out of school. Which is, of course, what I promptly did.
Many of our young adults need help, not because they are weak, but because they are human.
We lack a social safety net for our young adults. The cost of education, inaccessible healthcare, and a dearth of affordable mental health services are all stumbling blocks. Many need help, not because they are weak, but because they are human. But our young adults are still dealing with a culture that makes them feel like they cannot become adults if they have returned home for support.
In her book, Stauffer shares the story of Laney. She graduated college and then moved home during the pandemic. She works full-time. But still, she feels left out of the narrative of adulthood. “While she ‘transitioned to adulthood in her childhood home” she watched friends make the same transition while going to grad school.” Laney knows adulthood is “about the growth of a person, but it is always contextualized by exploring and novelty.”
Why can’t transitioning to adulthood be contextualized in the home? How would the concept of home, the work done in it, the value it could provide change if we saw it as a place to grow, not just leave. The narrative lacks an understanding of what the home can provide, but is also incredibly exclusionary.
Community is a really human need.
Dr. Katsiaficas says, “immigrant-origin young people are getting mixed messages, where the dominant one is to “make it on your own”, while the message that often occurs in the context of families and communities is “they’ve helped me get here, now I want to take them with me.” Something she believes needs to be explored more deeply about emerging adulthood is how critical interdependence and social responsibilities are during this time. Caring for families, opening a small business in your childhood neighborhood, and saving to buy a house with space for parents to live were all mentioned in conversations with young adults about their aspirations for home, so were means of home being an opportunity for interdependence, taking care of others and feeling cared for yourself. Community is a really human need.
Feeling cared for yourself! I wish I’d read those words at 19. I am so grateful to have read them at 36. Why are we telling young people, ourselves, that we need to stand alone? Why can’t the home be big enough for our glorious ordinary selves, at every stage we find ourselves in need of it? Rainesford Stauffer is no idealist. In the book she acknowledges that not everyone has a home they can, or should, return to. Having a place to call home in America is still a privilege. I do wonder though, how many more future American homes would be secure, warm places if we began shifting our understanding of what the home can be right now.
Stauffer’s book is kind of a radical vision of a future we could have.
Stauffer’s book is kind of a radical vision of a future we could have. It's not a future we are meant to have. Destiny won't guide us here. But a willingness to rework systems and shift value from what we do to who we are? That might help us get close to the future I could see by the light of Stauffer's words.
Kids would know what they want to be has so little to do with what they will do for a job.
A future where the communities we build are ones we can maintain. A future where teachers still ask kids what they want to be when they grow up. And the kids draw social workers, the owner of a local shop, a teacher. Or they might not draw a career at all. They might draw themselves gardening, hiking, or sitting with their family. Because they'd know what they want to be has so little to do with what they do for a job. It’s a future where we understand that an ordinary life is a life well-lived and a life well-lived is ordinary.
A future where a kid like me might still draw a writer when the teacher asks who they want to be. But maybe it's a writer with a newsletter instead of a National Book Award. (This ordinary newsletter brings me such extraordinary joy.)
If you have a young adult or soon to be young adult in your house, this book will change their lives. Please give it to them. If you were once a young adult, this book will change the way you look at your life and your community. You can buy the book from my bookshop. 10% of the sales go to homeculture and each sale supports independent bookstores.
I am giving this book to every graduating senior know this year. Can I give one of you this book too? Entering for a chance to win is simple.
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