Supertramp’s “Take the Long Way Home” was at its height in the early months of my new life in the Midwest, just on the cusp of winter flipping to spring in 1979. It seemed an anthem for me those two and half years that I lived in Columbia, Missouri, first in an unfortunate dorm room, then in a house with six other women, and finally in a small bungalow with three other roommates.
The album Breakfast in America inevitably played in the background of every party in those days while we sloshed generic vodka in paper cups to mix with powdered milk, talked trash about sexist journalism professors who told us
women weren’t capable of hard news reporting, and played musical beds, hoping true love would prevail and take us out to Ernie’s for breakfast the next morning.
Those were the days when I lived the lyrics, “So you think your life has become a catastrophe?/ Oh, it has to be for you to grow, boy.” No matter that I wasn’t a boy, I had plenty of catastrophe to go around. I changed jobs almost more times than I changed clothes, working at a Dairy Queen, movie theater run by a philandering middle-ager who kept hitting on us, running the register at a mom and pop shop, and even did the graveyard shift at student newspaper print shop. Learning to live on my own financially after my father cut off all aid from home was messy at best and humiliating at worst as I navigated feeding myself on a dime (who knew that one can of beer would make a filling lunch!), many bounced check charges, and too many nights of only four hours of sleep. I also changed classes, boyfriends, outlooks, and ideas about my identity at lightning speed. I can’t remember putting hardly any time into homework.
Underneath all the clanging and clutching, I only had the vaguest sense about how to live my life, but certain things were emerging: I loved the Midwest and felt more at home here than anywhere I had lived, friendship and community trumped all else, I wasn’t really cut out for journalism (and not because I wasn’t a boy), and I loved the serendipitous surprises that overtook me sometimes when my plans were stood up or kicked out the door. At no time in my life did I walk alone or with a friend so much in the middle of the night, sometimes through downtown alleys with spray pain in my purse, and often toward parties blasting Supertramp, reinforcing that if my life was a mess, then maybe I really wasn’t.
Decades past, I don’t believe that catastrophe is the prerequisite for growth. I know how much we can be led by love, illuminated by joy and dazzled awake by the beauty of the shimmering cottonwood leaves before they detach. Yet as I watch the early 20’s lives of some of my children, in the middle of moving four times in two months, or scraping together enough income from a bundle of part-time jobs to pay the rent, I’m reminded of the wildness of this time of life, what David Brooks calls the Odyssey years between adolescence and adulthood. An odyssey it is and was, and if I could tell my 20-year-old self anything, I wouldn’t tell her where she would land or even to enjoy the ride, just to listen to the song and relax a little.