Bildungsroman

by Minte Irmer

Once upon a time, I was a freshman. Everyone goes through that stage. Some have it worse, some have it better, but at the crossroads of life, I accidentally took the shortcut towards Capital-A Adulthood.

If you don’t know what a Capital-A Adult is, you probably are one. I hate to say it, but you people are the worst. I simultaneously fear and respect you, want to be you and want to push you away. For those of us on the cusp of Adulthood, or perhaps still a safe-enough distance away that you can reasonably expect your mother to pick you up for Christmas break, Capital-A Adulthood is a terrifying place. As a freshman, it was still a faceless, nameless beast slumbering near the misty forests of senior year—but all that changed rather rapidly.

By the end of sophomore year, Adulthood reared its ugly head, spurting fire made of insurance and broken car parts. Beyond its scaly tail, nestled in its glittering hoard, lay marriage, a move across the world to Japan, and kind-hearted professors that helped me finish my education from a distance—but it all came at the cost of conquering the dragon. You can have these treasures, it said, if you’re willing to spell “Adult” with a lowercase A.

Tugging the mystical capital letter down to a practical reality is a never-ending wrestling match. We all know what that means: giving up that #wildandfree #collegelyfe. Well, the dragon of Adulthood and I worked out a deal. I took the treasure of marriage and moved across the world, but I slowly have to accustom myself to bills and cleaning an apartment and living alone while my husband is at sea. Actually, it’s entirely worth it, but that’s a topic for another day.

I live in Japan now, and it’s spectacular. I never expected to even visit, let alone live here, so everything is a new and exciting delight. I’ve seen an ancient, towering Buddha; bustling, downtown Tokyo; unassuming, anime-costuming-wearing people on the train. I’ve eaten at a sushi-go-round, I’ve eaten raw octopus, I’ve eaten asparagus with chopsticks (harder than you’d think). I learned to say “thank you” in Japanese, but I probably still say it incorrectly. (Okay, so the language is a work in progress.) I wouldn’t give up the opportunity to live here, even if I had been able to linger in the sunny, flowering fields of young-adulthood. Beating the dragon was worth it… but it also means facing other dragons, like the one I just met when visiting Hokkaido.

Hokkaido is the main northern island of Japan, known for its rustic style, local beer, and world-famous snow festival in the city of Sapporo. With nothing else to do, I flew up there for a few days to see the festival. It was extraordinary: glistening snow sculptures, dare-devil ski tricks, free museums, and fresh beer. Akin to Yoopers, the Hokkaido residents are unashamedly proud of their snowy paradise. They paste the chunky outline of the island on everything and champion their pride for the place on every poster, sweatshirt, and grocery bag. My favorite part, though, was the people: A woman on the bus translated the overhead announcements for me and ensured I got off at the right stop. A girl on a field trip at the snow festival politely asked me where I was from for her school project. A father and his four-year-old son played Japanese rock-paper-scissors on the train, then laughed and laughed until tears rolled down their cheeks. Hokkaido stole my heart.

But as I watched all these people and saw their passion for their home, one of those dragons snuck up, roaring fires of loneliness. You took Adulthood, he said, laughing. But you left all your friends at home! And he was right. I was the only person I knew for hundreds, if not thousands, of miles. I’m a little American hiding out by the naval base, forging acquaintances in the white-hot flame of desperation, and exploring Tokyo out of fear of becoming a recluse. Maybe there’s lots to do, and maybe there’s plenty of people around to meet, but that doesn’t mean I’m not lonely out here on the edge of the Pacific.

Thanks to the interwebs, I’m not so lonely as I could have been, and that deserves honorable mention. I can snapchat my sister daily, text my friends at obnoxious hours of the day, stalk friends and acquaintances alike on Facebook. I can call my mom or video-chat with my two-year-old goddaughter. At the end of the day, though, and I mean literally, I am the only one awake, the only one around, because home is fifteen hours behind me.

Oddly enough, Telemachus saved the day. For my last English class during my last semester, I’m working through the Odyssey again, just like I did in my first English class during my first semester. Back then, as an unlearned freshman, I wrote idiotic notes like “your mom,” “mmmeat,” and “ripped” (seriously). This time around, I didn’t take many notes, but I did pay more attention, and I identified with Telemachus.

Ickle Telemachus. He’s so young and confused, much like your average undergraduate, but with the added issue of having a handful of jerk suitors plotting to kill him and marry his mom. (Sorry if you have that problem too.) He’s not sure where he is in life, if he’s a boy or a man, if he needs to tell his mom he’s leaving the house or if he can just go, if he can just tell the suitors to get out of there or if that’s disrespectful, if he ought to respect his father or his swineherd more.

Well, I can’t solve Telemachus’ problems any more than I can solve my own, but reading about them really brought something home (unlike Odysseus). Telemachus and I are wrapped in different problems based on our… well, our everything. I don’t know what to do after I graduate, he doesn’t know what to do about his missing father, but we’re both coming of age (whatever that means) and facing Capital-A Adulthood with our teeth bared and our swords drawn. Whatever the differences are, Telemachus reminded me that I’m not the only one to face something like this.

And with the Odyssey, I discovered one of my most powerful weapons, one of my last and final defenses against Real Life’s dragons, a solace from boredom, idleness, and loneliness: imagination.

At the end of the day I curl up on the brand-new couch I had to pick out for my brand-new Capital-A Adult apartment and snuggle down into a book. Through books I soar to other worlds, I trudge through this one, I peer into history and speed into the future. I meet people I never would have known, I feel feelings I never would have thought of, I become despair and joy and bravery and heartache and wonder and love. I learn a lot through books, whether I could name it or not, and all the conquering of real dragons in fairy tales gives me strength to pick up my sword again tomorrow and conquer my own dragons.

Imagination does more than dissolve loneliness, though. With books, I can foray into a community of like-minded readers, of other people who have found their strength and their solace and their adventure in books. Telemachus and I aren’t the only ones to think about Capital-A Adulthood; all the other people who’ve read about him have encountered the same problem, all the other people growing up in the real world have, too. Neither is Telemachus my only friend—but by befriending him, I’ve connected with the freshmen struggling through the epic for the first time, I’ve met with the professorial scholar of Ancient Greece, I’ve bonded with every intrigued or indifferent partaker of the Odyssey—merely by reading it. I didn’t have to go to Japan to do that, either. Imagination did the same thing growing up in Wisconsin. Imagination did the same thing in class at Hillsdale. Imagination doesn’t only give me courage to deal with the everyday; it brings me home. 
Let me add, too, that it’s not that I don’t value living in Japan. I value it every day—the cherry blossoms bursting off the trees, the artwork on the manhole covers, the chocolate fries at McDonalds. I’m always up for adventure and I find it every day. But living abroad has made me value the timelessness of imagination, the constancy of stories, the magical mind-cloud I share with everyone else who reads. And with my trusty books in my well-stocked armory, I can go on to face Capital-A Adulthood fearlessly and live happily ever after. The End.

Minte Irmer is a senior finishing her English degree from Japan.

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