Grappling with Permanence

Emma Cohen

My first impression of teenage-hood was when I was probably about eight, watching Grease on a rented DVD at my cottage, with a sunset dripping behind me and feeling as if being a teenager was this huge exciting secret. High school from that perspective consisted of letterman jackets from your boyfriend, drive-in movies, milkshakes, car races, pep-rallies, sleepovers where you snuck booze and cigarettes. Maybe this 1950s version of adolescence still holds up in the most simplistically stereotypical of views, but in the 21st century, adolescents are evidently more than that; they’re also being taken as true thinkers and innovators who are culturally aware, socially aware, politically inclined.

Underlying it all, though, is an allure that is perpetually seen in teenage life. Culture, society, everyone is obsessed with the oasis of beauty and excitement that the young carry with them. Youth has always been viewed and categorized with a certain covet and fascination. Wildness, recklessness and illusions of permanence saturate it. Its associations with these things are what draw artists and media to be fascinated by adolescence. Most times, this analysis is found in retrospection: the careful observation by adults lamenting the bygone days, loving to remind us that certain music and movies are “theirs,” and remembering what it was like “to be young.” All throughout the progression of life, there is no one state as fixated upon by the human population as youth. But my relationship with youth, teenage-hood and high school, and my fascination with it, is from a perspective of simultaneity.

Right now, I have just graduated high school. My feelings are like those I believe most teenagers probably have, whether consciously or not. Because whether or not I realize it sometimes, all these feelings and thoughts I’m having are not just mine. They are all young peoples. These feelings indicate that our lives now are somehow permanent and feel thick with forever. But we’re also acutely conscious of how temporary this is. The thought of this period of time as transitory seems so obvious to me, and yet somehow still seems so foreign. My generation feels this in a new way, as we are bombarded with old and new – technologies emerging faster than ever before, but fascination with the past remaining. Instagraming our thrift shop finds in some time-warp collision of eras. I don’t believe that any generation can or should be categorized simply, but there’s no doubt that a group of people is linked together by age, and therefore tied loosely together by the shared circumstance of the world in which they grow up. There are an infinite variety of people who make up my generation, all with varying shades of self. While we are all individuals, our simultaneous growing pains give us some sense of similarity. I am part of a generation where information comes from blinking white computer screens, where opinions are flung with the new voracity of anonymity, and the lines between real and fake fade into the oblivion of the privacy that once was the norm. There is the constant influx of technological gems and trash; we both are sick of them, and thrive on them.

Perhaps this all-absorbing love teenagers possess, only available from those somewhat naïve and unclogged by the tiredness of years, is accounted for by the transitional feelings we have. The want to latch on to what we fear will disappear. Our love for social media derives from our need to share ourselves. Social media is a grand act of self-preservation. My generation is constantly being pushed forward – University, job market, scholarships, political issues – all good things, but we are always looking ahead, sometimes feeling helpless. It’s like when Cynthia says in Dazed and Confused, “I’d like to stop thinking of the present as some minor insignificant preamble to something else.” Like anyone, teenagers are deathly afraid that our own moments will slip by unchecked, unnoticed, unimportant. The difference is now we have pseudo-tools in the form of smartphones that let us believe we are immortalizing our moments. That is why we are in a constant state of doing and observing. We want to prove we’re important. This lack of permanence, this realization of the temporality of everything that is happening, and the fear of now as inconsequential, is pretty terrifying.

And yet, I feel like my coming-of-age is this golden era that exists somewhere forever. The idea of infinity has become mainstream in adolescent culture to the point of losing any meaning and becoming gag inducing, but the reason for this is because teenagers do comprehend the idea of feeling infinite. Here on this precipice, I’m trying to find some sort of meaning in all my experiences. I am collecting my memories as if I can hold them, as if they can prove something to me. Because here I am, like anyone, hoping that my slice of existence is, in fact, at least micro-significant. But more than that, I’m hoping these feelings of forever and these feelings of possibility don’t wither with age. I don’t want to look back on myself as a seventeen year old and see all this as irrelevant. Naïve? Okay. Idealistic? Sure. But unimportant? I want to change and get better and become more myself, but I also want what I’m feeling now to be as important as it seems to me.

The have and have-not, the holding on and letting go, the hearts full and heartbreaks of teenage-hood are, I assume, similar to any part of life. But there is a distinct difference that lies within all of these feelings as a teenager, and that is because within the galaxy of newness we inhabit as the young, we are exposed and raw: it is all fresh. Everything is heightened to a sometimes-unbearable intensity. There is a special brand of teenage joy, the complete elation we can feel when we are throwing ourselves at the world with breakneck speed. Heartbreak, too, is intensified. It’s complexity of being both so singular in experience, and utterly universal, transcendent and individual is often witnessed for the first time during adolescence. In some kind of consolation, but also sadness within itself, even the heartbreak and pain we feel is temporary.

Veering towards the decline of my adolescence, I now more than ever am reflecting on these memories – stupid, boring, amazing as they may be – that fleet by like milky stars, and trying to grasp them. Teenage-hood is portrayed in art and in adult-reflection as a magical and horrific time, littered with first dates and pimples and slow dances. With embarrassment, friendship pacts, love letters, and inevitable comparison. There is the sense that adolescence is drenched in romance, in a painfully beautiful way. However my biggest admittance is this: adolescence can sometimes be underwhelming, like any other part of life. This is the thing no one wants to say, because these years that give us the freedom of licenses and brooding bedroom windows are mostly perceived as fluorescent. High school is an encapsulated vessel of new experiences, an attribute that lends itself well to its categorization as the Best Four Years of Your Life. But the best four years of our lives do not have to all follow in succession. I wouldn’t say that teenage-hood is the best years of my life, or necessarily anyone’s. But that isn’t the point of high school. It is not meant as an idyllic span of time, but rather an arc of messy, constant learning. So while it is magical and horrific, the point to adolescence isn’t that it’s perfect. It’s that within these years, we have our moments. We have our coming-of-age that is awkward, angst-ridden, heart wrenching, and sometimes dull. So yes, adolescence can be underwhelming. But like the eternal teen mouthpiece, John Hughes, said, “At that age, it feels as good to feel bad as it does to feel good.”

A lot of times, I tend to be filled with the zeal that comes with the time of life that allows for constant self-reflection and self-absorption. This is a time of sharp, vast and powerful feelings, and a time where we think about ourselves a lot. The hours of the days stretch and shrink while we feel elated and feverish about it all. There is a constant whirlwind of attempts to justify, rectify and comprehend these massive emotions and thoughts. While all humans probably have this, it is marginally heightened when everything is new and shiny. Everything is a first: teenagers are falling in love, making mistakes, making choices about careers, trying hard to be cool, losing their cool, constantly searching for something, as if the secret to life, to being interesting and happy, were some kind of commodity to just find and consume. Maybe that’s why we obsess over pop culture, find comfort in music, movies, books. I tend to reflect upon my experiences mirrored by the culture I intake, everything provoking something else. I realize that I’m not the only one on this lonely planet to feel these immense, vulgar and spectacular things. We all hook our own memories onto these pop culture artifacts (songs that become painful when they remind you of how things once were, movies that make you feel less alone, a book that got you through that one time) as if they mirror and preserve our own stories.

This perhaps seems futile, shallow, this fixation on glowing memories, on teenage-hood. But I really don’t think it’s either. I don’t think of these moments, this time, as irrelevant. Their existence demonstrates the intertwining beauty and tragedy of high school. This era of life is temporary, that much is sure, but this does not diminish its importance. I’m not saying this is the best time of my life, but it’s not that bad either. There is so much I love about right now, and what has been. Driving through the golden tilt, past the strip mall rooftops with the music dripping out the windows. Whispering about dreams and telepathy until falling asleep at 4am. Learning to skateboard in a cement dugout of an old bowling alley. Wildly dancing in basements with green flashing lights. Lying around in sun-glazed bedrooms. Sitting on park benches in the fog and looking at carved initials and declarations. Talking on the phone in the middle of the night for hours, about tracing fingers on globes. Eating eggs and bacon at the high school’s breakfast spot. Sitting at the kitchen table with my parents talking about when they were young and full of uncertainties.

Pining for the past is useless; I know this. I’m not longing for things that once were, or that will soon cease to be. I’m not wishing to pull the past into the present, but rather wrapping myself with these pasts as I go on.  Coveting youth is something I don’t believe in, nor strive for, but I equally do not wish to look back on my opinions and feelings at this age and see them as undeveloped and insignificant.

I revel in what is reality to me right now, this high school existence. This knowledge that I am young and that what is behind me is not better than what is in front of me. There is a dense perpetuity that we live in. There is this perpetual forwardness that is steeped with unrest. I have graduated high school. This brief time of my life will close at the end of the summer. I will still be young, maybe even still a teenager, and I will still have so much in front of me, sprawling out with the vastness of opportunities. I know this, and I am aching for it, for the collections of experiences not yet had, lessons not yet learned, mistakes unmade, people unloved, and things untried.

Out of high school, however, the encapsulation of a created world fractures, and everything is different. These years with their overflowing nights and restless afternoons, they are ending. To be replaced by something else, surely. But still ending. Because change is too, perpetuity: each day rolls in with an influx of variables shifting our life by just a centimeter, but shifting nonetheless. What will come soon for me, for many of us, is a grand swing of change, one shouting endings and beginnings. And while we make pinky swears and blood brother bonds right now, I know they will not always last. Some will, and some won’t. But as the summer creeps in, hinting of endings, we comfort ourselves by one last time conceding to be engulfed by our decadent forevers. We talk about getting out, about the lives we will have, how we will always, always visit and never, never forget.

cover art by Stephanie Frey