For roughly a third of its 28 mile run, the I-696 expressway is cut down into the earth, its concrete walls slicing through the moraines that decorate southeastern Michigan. Driving along the highway, with those walls rising up on either side of the you, there is a strange feeling that traffic isn’t driving down a road so much as flowing through a massive, industrialized riverbed. Heading eastbound on the highway, approaching its perpendicular intersection with I-75, the freeway passes beneath several prominent surface roads. In three or four places, at the widest of these underpasses, small, square lights are embedded in the concrete to illuminate the covered highway. Grimy with years of filth, most of the lights glow in sepia-tinted yellows or faded oranges. Some of the lights are dead; plain gray boxes awaiting the reinvigorating hands of a city technician.
For three years I drove past those lights every weekday, to and from work, and on most days I failed to pay any particular attention to them. They became meaningless scenery. My mind was busy elsewhere. But some days – when I remembered who I used to be – I would notice those dingy lights and then I couldn’t help but smile.
If self-help books were the preferred means of (imagined) self-improvement for an older generation, then the “adulting” genre is the preferred means of mine. There’s a reason that this types of media is so popular: there is no fixed point when your childhood ends and your adulthood begins. So if you’re walking down that transitional path, it’s easy to wonder: am I doing this right? Is this how everyone feels? Those timeless experiences are particularly acute for my generation, a generation that has been so widely and unfairly infantilized by everyone outside of it that it’s sometimes difficult to remember that any other group of people has ever been young. Aging happens, though. We all become adults someday.
I recently had lunch with a colleague of mine who is nearly a decade older than I am. During our lunch my colleague explained how his youngest son had been unable to sleep for more than an hour or two at a time for the first year and a half of the boy’s life. Each night – for a year and a half, mind you – my colleague and his wife would take turns getting up in the middle of the night to tend to the child, neither of them ever getting more than a few hours of unbroken rest. When I expressed my concerns that such an experience must have been utterly horrible, my colleague delivered one of the sager pieces of wisdom I’ve ever heard:
“Once it was over and he could sleep through the night I’d look back and think, ‘Was it that bad? No, it really wasn’t that bad.’ Of course, it actually was that bad. But once it’s over you forget.”
A secret of adulthood: forgetfulness really and truly is the greatest coping mechanism. How else could you casually brush off not getting a full night of sleep for a year and a half? Nature has programmed us to forget these horrible experiences soon after they pass. And, especially as we get older, we do. We forget the misery we’ve endured. But we forget some of the joy, too.
When I was a kid I loved going to the Detroit Zoo. It was quite possibly my single favorite thing to do. To get there we’d drive along I-696, under those overpasses and past those fading yellow and orange lights. Since trips to the Zoo were the only times my family ever really traveled down that stretch of highway, I came to have a Pavlovian response to those lights: I couldn’t help but feel anxious and excited when I saw them. They meant that we were almost there, that the Zoo was close.
Those lights don’t have any impact on me anymore. There is something special, of course, about remembering the joy they used to bring me, even as age and repetition have dimmed their power. And yet, in the same way that my colleague couldn’t help but forget the misery of his sleepless nights, I couldn’t help but forget the excitement that I once felt driving down I-696. Time carries us forward, leaving our past selves behind – and what good would it do to remember those prior feelings in full, anyway? As wiser minds have noted, it’s perilous to live in the past, to cling to or chase after lost memories and emotions, however good or bad. There’s value in our forgetfulness, in our ability to let the past fade away as we grow.
When I drive past those faded yellow lights now, I mostly ignore them. They don’t leave me totally without emotional response, though. Sometimes when I see them, I can’t help but smile because I remember the joy that they used to inspire in me when I was a child and also because I am not that child anymore. Remembering, it turns out, is another underrated signifier of adulthood. And you can’t remember until you forget.