have to start somewhere . . .
I feel like I’m somewhere around 50 years old, at the present juncture in my life. Yet I am only recently 24. Perhaps most people, when they are happy (and/or if their perception of their own age is unbothered) don’t really think of age much. I did not until I moved to a place where all my previous activities and other self-expressing signifiers were made irrelevant. I believe my internal overaging stems from the cultural differences between the Arctic Alaska bush and the places I’ve lived most recently: Boston, MA and Bellingham, WA. Culture shock will out.
In both of the latter locations, I lived in an urban center. Where I live now semi-resembles an urban center: the town is small and compact, and in the Barrow, Browerville, and NARL sections of town, there are business centers with nearby residences. This is not unlike either Boston or Bellingham. The types of businesses, however, are completely different. Instead of bars, late-night restaurants, and a wide (or at least some) variety of everything, there are only 8 restaurants in town and the only social establishments are churches, the bingo hall, and the roller rink. No bars, no coffee shops, no music venues or art galleries to be found. Also, walking between locations is possible (especially now, in the summer), but even in the summer is moderately uncomfortable to do with extreme winds and a complete lack of paved roads or sidewalks. Moving here, I have changed all of my out-of-the-house activities drastically, and from activities I considered to be befitting of my age and temperament to activities which feel unbefitting to my age.
My only social activity is a weekly knitting group, which I happen to love, but still—an activity conventionally thought of as for old women (though yarnwork and other stitchery are presently not unvogue among young women—google “knitting blog” for example). I go to work from 8:30 to 5:00pm every day, the monotony of which routine is both comfortable and mind-numbing, a sobering truly adult experience. At work I am treated with respect and given tasks which both utilize my mental capabilities and whither them. It is lovely to feel respected at work, something I feel my age has not truly afforded me in many of my other recent positions. However, this additionally makes me feel as though I have aged (a catch-22 in that overcoming the respect factor I feel as though I have overcome age, when I am still young). Perhaps I should celebrate this accomplishment in the workplace in itself without reading age into it.
Occasionally I help out with programs for children at the public library, which my sister is in charge of. Though I have volunteered with children for most of my young life, using my free time to be with them creates further feelings of adulthood. I go out to eat with a couple friends occasionally, and every once in a long while I have drinks with friends at the house, but it does not feel as festive as going out somewhere. It feels like co-alcoholsim (though it’s not often enough to actually be). I know that a lot of parties are always happening with the young people in town, but (young though I am), getting trashed at random people’s houses every weekend is not exactly my idea of a good time. See above notion of co-alcoholism. However, perhaps I should be trying out more of these as opportunities to meet other people my age. I know that I have been shy.
Since my out-of-the-house activities have differed so drastically, I have tended to stay at home, where my at-home activities have not changed much from past lives. I still like to read, cook, watch movies, write, sew and crochet &etc. The lack of tempting activity outside of the house has led me to turn completely inward, where I can at least maintain those aspects of self. One difference is that I have felt the need to self-educate much more than I ever did living elsewhere: reading, studying for the GRE’s, watching Sister Wendy dvds and looking at art books to try and keep up with art history. Even if the rest of me is withering, I have endeavored to keep my mind a living thing.
A major signifier of self which I feel is rendered irrelevant in Barrow, AK is dress. Though I do believe that physical appearance is never the only self-identifier, it is the first thing that people see, and as someone who delights in visual culture, I have always enjoyed wearing things which made me an individual in my own eyes. The weather in Barrow is quite extreme. Currently, it is the summer season and everything is melted—we are enjoying global-warmingly high temperatures around the 50’s and there’s no snow—but the unpaved roads are rutted and muddy and the winds are still rather fierce to be out in. Physical apparel is almost completely weather-related here, with good reason. In temperatures as low as 70 below with the windchill in the winter, a wool coat and ballet flats are what you wear if you want to get frostbite (even only walking to and from cars!). In the summer period, it is not sensible to wear anything you don’t want to get mud splattered on, as the town is a soupy mud bowl. So, in comparison to my past lives, instead of putting on mascara and a dress I made myself to go out and see live music, I am putting on boots and a heavy jacket to go to the grocery store or knitting group.
Also, since 40-45 hours of the week are dedicated to work, my workwear is predominantly my life-wear. For work I am required to wear professional-looking things, which in general are fairly homogenizing, on purpose. I still have the option to personalize these things as much as I can, but I do miss the life of a student and the ability to look as disheveled as I’d sometimes like. A lot of the home-made or altered clothing that I enjoy wearing in Bellingham is just not suitable for the workplace, and definitely not suitable for the Arctic. The adulthood of dressing like a professional all the time additionally makes me feel old and boring. Perhaps what I am actually resisting here is not old age, but adulthood.
Iñupiaq women young and old, and a lot of white women in town as well, wear beautiful home-made shirts and shirt-dresses called atikluks. There are also male-versions of atikluks, but mostly I see them worn by women. These are very beautiful, with decorative trim, in bright highly-patterned prints. I see that other people in town use these to express themselves and identify themselves with Iñupiaq culture, but as an outsider, I have not really had access to these. I could either have a nice Iñupiaq lady sew me one, or I could pay exorbitant amounts at our one fabric store for a pattern and the fabric to make one myself (which I am considering, honestly). But, as an outsider to the culture, I have been hesitant. After all the myriad ways that white American culture has infringed on their way of life, maybe I should not be allowed to wear an atikluk. Or maybe wearing them is a sign of celebrating Iñupiaq culture, which I think is probably the general notion. They are lovely and aesthetically, I want one! Is it conformity to want to assimilate in some fashion to the culture of the place you’re living? Is it weakness of self to not pursue my previous ways of dress whole-heartedly though I’d look crazy and I already don’t know anybody? My answer so far to these questions has been to dress for necessity alone, in work clothes or Alaskan-weather gear, both of which make me feel old.
I think my age-identity problems here stem from the fact that my previous methods of social self-expression are either not possible, or simply very different from my experience here, and so the things I can imagine to do in their stead are old-people things. There are other methods, belonging to the different culture amidst which I have chosen to reside, but I am still trying to feel those out. Especially when I know I won’t be living here forever, it is hard to branch out into a new community. Coming from larger urban settings, I am used to community involvement not being necessary in order to feel lively and young.
The Iñupiat Heritage Center is full of wonderful artistic and historical artifacts of the Iñupiat people, and features occasional cultural showcases and activities for them. I have not spent a great deal of time there, though as an art gallery, it is something from my past life of young activity that I could technically perpetuate here. I have definitely looked through the few galleries and attended some Eskimo dances, but I have not gone in weekly or anything (that would probably be seen as fairly odd as no weekly activities are held there, to my knowledge).
If you do not act young or dress young, at least by your own estimations, are you old? Perception affects and creates reality, but how do we define the age we feel ourselves to be and therefore act out? I have defined my aging factors as activity and physical appearance. But, not being able to see myself as others do—seeing my body as fragments below me, draped in clothes out of necessity instead of creativity (as my fragments used to be), not seeing the young person’s head on top of that body without a mirror—perhaps I am exaggerating my limited viewpoint of my dead physical appearance to an unnecessary degree. Although, all the very friendly Korean restaurant owners in town say I look older than my sister, who is five years my senior, so maybe it’s time to start buying the wrinkle cream.