It was my good friends birthday yesterday. She turned only 19 years old. Still a baby. Although 19 was only 6/7 years ago for me, it seems so much longer. Being in your mid-20′s isn’t that old, but I feel like I’ve aged 2 lifetimes in the past 3+ years, I feel like I’m ageing in dog years. Maybe ageing like that makes you look back a bit more.
As I was out with my young course friends, I thought about what I’ve done so far in and with my life. And what getting older kind of feels like.
Philosopher Alain De Botton tweeted today that ” ‘Growing up’ in many ways a long process of learning to put up with stuff. Eventually, even the idea of dying.”
I came from an incredibly poor family, mostly it was just my mom, my bro, and me with my nan popping in often. As a result I didn’t have many things considered as “cool” growing up. My clothes were cheap, and shabby. I was a bit weird, I loved hip-hop and animation as a 8 year old. I had this incredible imagination. And I was kinda fat. This made me such an easy target to be bullied every-single-day up to high school. I tried my very best to be “cool” and “likeable”, but we didn’t have the money and when I did save up to get some “cool things”, the clothes looked weird on me. It looked insincere & wrong. Luckily, time and age taught me to slowly accept myself and follow what I like. And the strangest thing was, the more I accepted myself, the less grief I got from my fellow bully students. In fact, almost the opposite happened. I got more respected, and more known once I had accepted myself. Funny thing that, self-acceptance.
After my GCSE’s, we were made homeless (for too many reasons) for 6 months. We lived with my nan for a few months, until her landlord knew she was over exceeding her limit of people in the house. And then we went from temporary accommodation to temporary accommodation, all whilst I was trying to study for my AS levels. We finally busted the system and got enough points to get a council house. Crazy point: being homeless doesn’t give you enough points on the system to be eligible for a council house. Or it didn’t in 2004/5. How fucked up is that? I remember at the time being incredibly embarrassed about this. I didn’t tell a soul for months. But it just reinforced my love for Marxism and social justice. I was voted, by the whole of Doncaster by kids, to be a Youth Councillor for the Donx Youth.
I lasted about 8 months (and resigned) when I realised we didn’t really do that much except organize fun pizza parties.
I met Ed Miliband, he was the new MP the North Doncaster then. My friend & I had gone to complain about UCAS taking our money and then not processing our applications making our application late, and after the deadline – potentially affecting our uni offers (It didn’t). I stated it was because we’re working class, and the system was against us (Marxist in me). Of course, it was just a person not doing their job correctly, some clerical error. I can’t remember what he said he’d do. But I do wonder how many 16/17 year olds go to see their MP these days? You guys really should if you have an issue!
Ed asked, since he was new to the area, if I could organize for him to come to our school. I was pretty stoked with this & ended up doing a lil work with Ed. I had no idea back then that he could be the potential prime minister of 2016! (Hopefully, eh?!) – People, strangers, you meet will always surprise you. Everyone has a story.
I then was head-girl of the school in 6th form, and then also got excluded (for political reasons) as Head-Girl. I was also embarrassed about this. But as time has gone on, I realized just how kind of awesome it was. And it’s just another crazy story I get to tell. This taught me that the system, if it really wants to, will make sure you’re screwed over if you try and disrupt corrupted power.
As soon as I turned 15 my mom made me get a job. I didn’t even want one. And earnt a measily £2.50 per hour of my life. I knew my time was worth more than watching kids throw plastic balls at each other and fish dirty nappies out of the ball-pool. But as I got older, I realised why my mom made me do it. 1.) to instil a sense of labour and work and pride in earning your own way. 2) to learn how to interact with people you may never interact with outside of that environment. I swapped the wacky warehouse for scraping chicken fat off trays at ASDA in the rotisserie for 2 years every weekend & some more, but for £8.50 an hour. Not too shabby for a 16/17/18 year old. I saved all my money from this job, & EMA and took my mom to NYC for her birthday. It’s one of the best trips I’ve ever had.
I went to study Fine Art at university, I’m not sure how I came to decide to go to university as I’m the first person & so far the only person who has gone to uni in my whole family. It’s something that was never discussed. I just came home one day & was like, oh I’ve applied to university! Like I’d just subscribed to a mailing list. I remember feeling very casual about it. I even thought that once I got to university, that I wouldn’t be smart enough, get home-sick and drop out.
But I was pretty wrong. I ended up bulking up my time an extra year & getting a BA & a MA. I didn’t really return home for longer than 3 weeks for 4+ years.
My first uni year I applied to do Camp America. I ended up being placed on an island in the middle of a beautiful, clear water lake surrounded by mountains and trees in New Hampshire. Once I arrived to USA, I stayed in an industrial part of New Jersey for a night, I had to catch another bus at 5:30am to take me to port authority bus station, NYC, where I had to catch a greyhound bus to Boston, switch to another bus in Boston to a Fullers Gas station in Meredith, NH. (a lonely, virtually empty – and closed gas station when I got there) Where a complete stranger from the camp was to meet me, alone. I felt like I was some tame, none-drug induced version of Jack Karoac’s On The Road at age 18/19. The age my friend just turned.
I had a decent enough time at the camp, but I felt like an outsider in a very -family orientated family camp, enriched in family tradition – where everyone had been brought up together. I counted the days down to when I could leave and be back in NYC. The strangest thing was, once I got to NYC for a whole week. I felt incredibly lonely. I hadn’t realized that I had accustomed myself to Sandy Island life and friends. That’s the thing about time, it punishes you later for wishing away your time.
I decided to do live my fantasy of “On The Road” I had about $500 in my pocket from my camp summer job and a flight home from LA. I was still in NYC. So I took a bus to DC (I didn’t have any sort of game plan, don’t ask how I was planning to get to LA?!) but ended up meeting some people around my age who were going cross country in a van and camping. They asked if I wanted to join them so I decided to tag along. We did > DC > West Virgina and went Wild Rapid Boating > Virgina > Tennessee > Alabama > New Orleans — where my identity was stolen and I was fruaded and had no $$ in my bank account. At this point I had about $150 to last me. I cried. I had no idea what to do. But thing is, things work out. I was with good people. My mom wired me $80 >> we moved onto Texas, survived a mild hurricane >> Hitch-hiked over the border to Mexico, got really drunk and had to beg my way back into the USA >> New Mexico – saw some crazy bats > Went to Monument Valley and stayed on Native American land. I’ve never seen skies so clear. I slept outside on the ground in my sleeping bag instead of the tent – not even thinking about scorpions and crazy spiders and snakes that could have been hanging around – to sleep under the milkyway >> Went to Zion – hiked angels trek, and through rivers, went to Grand Canyon and we partied so hard we got asked to leave. >> We went to Vegas where I fake-ID’d my way into clubs, and bought nothing because well I had no money. But my new travel buddies help to pay for my liquor. We did a limo and ate at this super cool sushi place just off the strip. My first ever sushi experience> We drove to LA where we drank in a dive bar just near downtown LA, under a bridge. I felt like I was in some indie movie. This was the last night I saw my travel buddies. They were carrying on to San Francisco. I had my plane to catch.
That was the last time I saw them. I’ve seen a few of them since and we’re all still friends on Facebook. But this taught me to talk to strangers, take calculated risks, some times not having plans works out way better than having a rigid plan.
I once lived in this hip-apartment in Williamsburg one summer, that over looked the NYC skyline with a bunch of cool people doing internships for MTV, Saturday Night Live and The Onion – all on their daddy’s $$$ funds. I was funding my own dream. One of the dudes is an upcoming comedian on the West Coast and was in that Oscar winning Ben Affleck movie.
We were a mixed group of kids, with high energy, big dreams. Wide-Eyed in NYC. I ended up working for some of the most amazing and awesome people who changed my life in a then Chelsea Gallery. I remember how hot a NYC summer is… Coldplay Vida viva song was hot shit too. That album & Chris Brown Forever always takes me back. I asked M, the gallery boss, what her story was, how did she and her husband open the gallery. She spoke about communist Poland, trips to Chicago that made her fall in love with NYC, a burning love for art & art-history, selling shoes, joining rich upperside ladies visiting studios and collections, borrowing money & opening their first gallery that’s still going strong 28/29 years later.
I remember every single piece of art in that summer show and if I even really think about it – how much each piece of art was being sold for. I’ve never been so upset about leaving a job (even though it was so short), some people, a place before that. But one of my distinctive memories is my last day there, i walked out of the gallery, turned left walked down to 9th ave, kind of holding tears back looking up at a clear blue hot sky. I walked to the first working pay-phone I could find to call home to my mom to say how i was so happy that i had this amazing opportunity, but how sad I was to leave. I thought that I’d probably never see the Postmasters crew again, I thought I’d get forgotten about because that’s how my life was/is… Important people just fleeting between moments.
Luckily, I get to go and see them every year and this makes my heart so happy.
I left NYC and worked in a bookies (betting shop), trying to gain back the money I spent on my NYC wild adventure. I learnt how to bet, how to calculate all different bets like round robins and how to really bet on horses. That a favourite horse is statistically 33% to come in at a meeting, if you’re willing to chase your money around. I learnt how to follow soccer and do football bets. A great way to make money if it accumulates! I saved enough money to take an amtrak train ride across USA the same summer with my good friend shivvers.
She made me a rule. I couldn’t talk about art the whole journey. I suspect that’s all I was bothered about back then. We stayed in the Bellagio Hotel in Vegas courtesy of her dad. Shivvers wouldn’t even let me open the mini-bar so we created our own from mini’s from the vegas giftshops. We had a cab driver who had some sort of turrets and cursed death on every driver he drove past. I learnt that it takes about 3 whole days to take a train from LA to Chicago, and that you should pack spare clothes and not just check them all in. There was a guy who was giving strangers Tattoos on the train (certainly not us). We sat on the train, making up our own before sunrise stories up for all the strangers. 2008 was a good year. I keep telling the kids on my course that 20 was one of the best years of my life.
I taught spanish kids english in Hastings for what I think was the Spanish Mafia. They paid me about £400 a week in fresh £50 notes, cash. I’d take it to the bank and every time panic that they might question me. They never did but I was sure they thought it was dodgy money. These Spanish kids were clever, and spoke many languages. They learnt quick. I remember my favourite and most promising student failing her exam. She was the only one out of all 16 kids I taught, but I felt a sense of responsibility & guilt for it. That I was the reason why she failed. Perhaps it was nerves. Perhaps it was my teaching. perhaps we were both complacent. I often wonder what they’re up to now and how their English is.
I went to Chicago and worked on social art projects, and at the university of Chicago. I saw proper Labour Activist movements, I worked with real poor communities. I wrote things for great art magazines. I lived with people who worked at the MCA and Hyde Park Contemporary Art Center. I saw Obama’s house, I saw the Home Alone house, I had my first ever real Thanksgiving, and lived through the coldest weather I have EVER EVER walked through (about -20). These experiences woke something up in me, I went back to standing true to what I loved doing. Drawing and comedy and truths.
I wanted nothing more than a 1st class degree in art, but I couldn’t figure what I was missing to push my grade in to the first category. When I decided to go back to what I love, not worrying too much about the marking criteria, I finally graduated at the last hurdle with that hard worked for first class degree. Another lesson to be learnt. Sometimes you need to stick to your guns and your integrity. Don’t just do something to please others or because you think it will sell. People can see if it’s not true. And remember not everything that glitters is gold.
I have since never had to use my degree. No one has ever asked to see it, except when I went back to study. i do remember my art lecturer sending me an email telling me what I got. my heart was practically in my mouth, I opened the email using Boltbus free slow wifi on a bus from NYC to Boston (On my way to work back at camp some 3 years later from my first experience). I was stoked. I just wanted to tell the world! But I was travelling alone, so I did the next best thing. I wrote an email to my mom, a few select friends, to M at Postmasters and to a past lecturer michael corris who I looked up to in many different ways.
The first year after graduating with an art degree can be pretty hard. They never really tell you that, you assume it will be hard but you’re hopeful that it won’t. I graduated in the thick of the new recession. people were loosing their jobs left, right and center. Companies were being acquired or forced into bankruptcy. I got lucky and worked part time in a bookstore with another group of amazing people. Nothing prepares you for the doubt that you feel about following what you love when you consistently get rejected. But with rejections come some lessons. Lessons turned into opportunities and more opportunities and more lessons to learn from.
Things started working out for me with making a basic living with art and drawing. And then I started feeling all funny. I experienced fatigue like I’ve never experienced in my life, I was having these drenching nightsweats, I couldn’t eat, I had nose bleeds constantly, I had pretty bad bone-pain. It felt like flu-like symptoms but without the flu. I went back to the USA where I ended up being told it looked like Lymphoma. Cancer. I was like, fuck.
My whole life view was flipped upside down. Things that I thought was important didn’t seem as important as they once did. The unimportant things felt way more important. Time felt heavy. I had to grasp, in that moment, that my life and everything I’ve known will eventually blink away in a matter of decades, if not years, if not hours, and I will cease to exist. Which is hard, because when you’re young – you feel kind of invincible. Like you can put things off, because there’s always tomorrow, next week, next year. But there’s isn’t always more time.
Things carried on as normal though. As if nothing had changed. Which can be the most annoying thing ever, because I guess I’m still hurting and I want change. I want more urgency in things. I learnt from being unwell to ask for help if I need it. We can’t do everything on our own. I decided to learn from these experiences and use them to make a difference, so I went back to university and I am now studying Radiotherapy & Oncology.
I got hit by a car on my bike 2 weeks ago and broke & bruised my ribs. I flew over my handlebars and through air, I flipped upside down and landed on my neck. And I realized that there’s far more probability in me dying from being hit by a car than most other things.
So, what does it feel like to be older?
From time to time something reminds you of the past. Things hurt that never hurt before. Music was definitely better 10 years ago than it is right now. You start to buy things because they wash well, and shoes because they’re much more comfortable to wear. Time goes way faster. Experiences mash together like a tie-die. Leaving only horrendous memories and those euphoria, bucket-listy, nice moments that help build who you are in this very moment. There’s nothing much else in between.
When you get older, things you thought were important when you were younger aren’t as important and those things you thought were unimportant become more urgent.
I’m left looking at my younger course friends, what life experiences are in store for their next 6/7 years on this life, and just how much different a 19 yr old mind & body feel like compared to a 26 yr old mind/body.
I ended my friends birthday with this thought: What if we celebrated our expected years left instead of our years already spent?