The radio's been playing Taylor Swift's "We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together" over and over for weeks. It's been playing while the bold trees of summer outside my office window begin to bow as if in prayer. It's been playing while dusk methodically annexes evening, planting flags of scarves and sentimentality. It's played its way from summer praise-the-impulses party song to fall fresh-start anthem. And then it plays again. And then again, about a half hour later after a 30 second spot for the album/concert/awards show it's going to be played at.
I think, while I listen and watch the world outside change, that my people got something right picking autumn to host our Days of Awe, introspection, repentance. I think about how it's such a season of anticipation. Not anxious anticipation, like the winter. Or romantic anticipation, like the spring. Or anything-can-happen anticipation, like the summer. But manageable anticipation, like the first ride uphill of a good roller coaster: shaky and just a little slower than it feels it needs to be, making you feel the weight of the car, giving you time to know what you're getting into and how you have no way out. And then I think, How in the world am I not sick of this song yet?
OK, it's catchy and sassy and fun and all the good things pop songs should be, but those are good things more like chocolate milk than wine -- delicious as long as you honour that expiry date. I know though why this song is sticking with me. It's that little refrain about two-thirds in, that interjection of momentary recollection setting up the ultimate triumph: "I used to think/that we were forever, ever/and I used to say/ never say never..."
How many times throughout our lives are we told not to quit, not to give up? If we just find another way, look from another angle, choose another technique, sleep on it, eat on it, take it outside, take it inside, stop talking about it, start talking about it, give it time, don't give away time, dissect it, see it from a distance, use logic, use instinct, use emotion, trust ourselves, question ourselves, question others, quit being influenced by others, be ourselves, be someone else entirely...
God, it is exhausting! Sometimes, as Ms. Swift demonstrates with a vengeance, you damn well better start saying Never. And not just Never to wasteful things and negative influences (just say never ever to sin -- how cutesy and trite) but Never to people and prospects you greatly admire, even love, would trade your right arm -- but not your voice -- to be connected to. Internalizing that is probably one of the most important things I've gained from my twenties. I can imagine to some that sounds either disillusioned and resigned or immature and lazy. At least, there are voices in my head having that debate right now. One side is sniffling don't give up on your dreams, you can do it all, while the other's making snide remarks... something about fear of commitment?
But walking away can be admitting success as much as defeat. And, more importantly, saying Never takes a whole lot of commitment. A whole lot. When you make any commitment, after all, it's what you're excluding that's the challenging part. The constitutive part as well. Because endings don't just happen. Life, left on its own, is a series of one thing leading to another, leading to another. Nevers -- along with Nos, Not Nows, and The Ends -- are the creative interventions. If you tell yourself you had no choice in their occurrences, something in you will probably know that's not your claim to make. Not that it couldn't be true, but what can we possibly know less about than what else we might have been able to do?
So saying Never Ever Ever isn't passive acknowledgment but taking action, action that above all very much commits you. Even when it's a route towards gaining greater freedom, it means crossing a giant X through certain, otherwise obtainable possibilities and allowing your identity to be shaped by the negative space you've sanctioned. The Nevers worthy of flannel pajamas and fuzzy-eared headgear are the ones that own this authority. They're the ones that own up to the limitations of time and of our singularity, and yes, our fickleness and fatigability, and that most likely we can either be very good at a few things and very close to a few people or mediocre and fair-weathered at best.
I've always been a sucker for repentance and never (ever ever) liked the idea of accepting myself or my situation as is (putting ethics aside, that gets dull). Discipline, patience, improvement -- these are the little black dresses of the human condition, and with the leaves modeling the ease of colorful change while millions the world over chant ancient pleas for change and promises to change, I succumb each year to the allure of resolve.
These past few weeks, however, this has meant thinking mostly about what I need to not aspire towards in order to reach my goals. If your early twenties are about having the whole world laid out in front of you, the mid-to-late twenties seem to be about making sense of how this world begins to curl up around the edges. That is, how you choose to curl it up, choose what stays and choose, with serious dedication to that choice, what you will do without.