turning points


by Elaine de Kooning

Things often become meaningful only in retrospect. It’s incredibly difficult to gauge the significance of an event as it occurs—I don’t doubt there are genuine moments of love at first sight and obvious catastrophes, but many beginnings are inconspicuous. Even when something is clearly important it’s hard how to predict how it’ll change you.

Some of the ways I’ve met people who later became very important to me:

  • meaningless small talk at a friend’s party
  • 7/10 Coffee Meets Bagel date
  • he came up to me while I was typing on my laptop in a Mission tea shop with the killer line, “I think we have 75 mutual friends on Facebook”
  • sharing a room during a chaotic festival where we packed 12 people into a 5-person apartment

Hardly a romantic setting, right? Each year I meet a fair number of people who I could become very good friends with—they’re more than nice and smart and interesting enough. Most of them end up being only acquaintances. But a few stick, and they become embedded in my consciousness to the point where I can summon their voice in my mind as I think through a decision, can reach them through the portal of my phone knowing they’ll instantly call back. I’ve been altered by them and they’ve been altered by me.

Events are the same in their initial unpredictability. Some of the big turning points of my life:

  • meeting J in summer camp when I was 14
  • leaving school
  • my first summer in SF
  • taking psilocybin
  • reading an interview with Ottessa Moshfegh where she talked about the process of writing her first novel

These events felt like beginnings even as I was living through them, but I didn’t know how critical they would be or how the path ahead would unfold.

I’ve noticed that the people and decisions that mattered have all brought me closer to my real self, uncovered a self within a self. I often talk to friends about how early adulthood (age 18-24) is an important time because you’re in many ways sloughing off the self that your parents imposed onto you. Most people either conform to their parents’ values or rebel directly against them—the only way you can break out of this reactive cycle is by becoming self-aware enough to find the part of you that has always been there, the nature buried but not dismantled by the nurture. From Becoming Attached:

The first part of emotional healing is being limbically known—having someone with a keen ear catch your melodic essence. A child with emotionally hazy parents finds trying to know himself like wandering around a museum in the dark: almost anything could exist within its walls. He cannot ever be sure of what he senses. For adults, a precise seer's light can still split the night, illuminate treasures long thought lost, and dissolve many fearsome figures into shadows and dust. Those who succeed in revealing themselves to another find the dimness receding from their own visions of self. Like people awakening from a dream, they slough off the accumulated, ill-fitting trappings of unsuitable lives. Then the mutual fund manager may become a sculptor, or vice versa; some friendships lapse into dilapidated irrelevance as new ones deepen; the city dweller moves to the country, where he feels finally at home. As limbic clarity emerges, a life takes form.

The self is not inherited but actively created. Sometimes it needs to be rediscovered. For me, the process of becoming an adult involved returning to the kid I was. In her memoir Celia Paul writes that she is now “aware as never before that there is an unbroken connection between the two: I have always been, and I remain at nearly sixty, the same person I was as a teenager, when I first met Lucian; and as a child in India, when I sat so still in the beautiful garden of our house in Trivandrum that the butterflies landed on me.” Continuity can feel like liberation: when I was eight years old I already knew that I wanted to be an author. When I was 4 or 5 I had the same basic worldview I do now—essentially optimistic, essentially willful. But as I grew up I inherited all these neuroses—worries about achievement and prestige and inevitability and decline and death and my body as an object to perfect—that warped my sense of who I was.

The turning points of my life have freed me from my fictions, made me more real to myself. They’ve been both euphoric and traumatic: it’s comforting to realize that a black hole is sometimes just a portal. Bad relationships, for instance, can force a necessary confrontation—sometimes you need to break apart to reconsolidate into a stronger version of yourself. Turning points are reckonings, revealing things we may want to deny. Good things: that we are kinder than we thought we were, more capable of passion and loyalty. Bad things: that we’re willing to lie to others and to ourselves, shrink away from duty, turn away from love. But unpleasant self-knowledge is the price of admission to growth. Every choice is an uncovering. We’re all matryoshka dolls with selves nested within selves.

A lot of potential turning points have popped up recently in my life. Starting to write, moving to New York. Getting a dog, spending part of every year in Utah. I’ll only discover years from now how meaningful these forks are. It’s hard to live without knowing, but there’s also no other way to live. A passage from How to Write an Autobiographical Novel about our collective desire to know the future: “Will I be loved, will the love last, is my lover cheating? Will I get the new job, the new promotion? Will my book sell? It’s the shadow on every kiss and every dollar, that it might not be there tomorrow.”

We yearn to see what lies before us but it is necessarily obscured. We are changing by the hour and we can barely keep track. We fall in love not knowing how or when the relationship will disintegrate. We walk into one particular bar on one particular April evening and nothing is ever the same again.

A question for you: what were the major turning points in your life? Did you sense that they were important when they happened? How were you surprised?