How to Grow Up by Michelle Tea

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Special books seem to find their way into my life through acts of divine intervention; Michelle Tea’s new memoir-in-essays How to Grow Up is one such book. It came to me when I needed a serious sanity check about the state of my past and my pending future.

Tea is a woman I’ve watched and read from the sidelines for some years now. She is far cooler than I could ever imagine myself to be. She’s the fork in the road that I didn’t take. Despite having come through the DIY riot grrrl scene, I enlisted in the Air Force, at the age of 17, so I could put myself through art school. With a year or so of military life under my belt, I drove to Philly from the dreary low-rise boxed buildings of the New Jersey base I was stationed at to see Sister Spit, a spoken-word tour based out of San Francisco that Tea started in mid-late ’90s. It left me exhilarated and depressed. What the fuck was I doing with my life, besides wasting away underneath crisply starched camouflage?

How to Grow Up is Tea’s journey of “getting from there to here,” here being the “life of a grown-ass woman: healthy, responsible, self-aware, stable.” The essays chart her way through filthy shared housing where cigarette burns scar the hardwood floors and fridges fester with hatched maggots, to a $1,100-a-month apartment; from tedious teen mall employment, to sliding into a leather hoodie from the racks at Barneys; from an impoverished long-term relationship with an aspiring rapper and ill-conceived hook ups, to marrying her “the one, the real deal, true love.”

Essay collections can be tricky. With all those free-standing pieces, by the midpoint you sometimes get to know the author a little too well – they become predictable, boring, self-righteous in their opinions. Tea avoids this, I think, because her intent is so clear, her tone so conversational and grounded in the mess and splendor of the everyday, that it doesn’t feel lofty. It stays fresh.

Every essay holds a surprising twist. In “Fashion Victim,” which I initially thought was a lighthearted romp into the world of expensive clothes, Tea is faced with choosing between a teaching job (which afforded her the ability to purchase that leather hoodie!) and flying to Paris, last minute, for Fashion Week.

I was always having to pick between a metaphorical teaching job – stability, the tried-and-true path, the sure bet – and metaphorical Fashion Week: art, writing, the once-in-a-lifetime chance, the irresponsible, reckless, and memorable.

When I said earlier that Tea was like the fork in the road I didn’t take, this is what I’m talking about. I have always, quite literally, chosen the tried-and-true. Remember, I first heard Tea at Sister Spit when I was in the military. She dives straight to the question that makes me sweat anytime I consider it:

…the old deathbed scenario. When I was on my deathbed, would I want to look back on a life filled with fear-based fidelity to a series of jobs that were not my true passion?

No. I wanted to have lived. To have taken chances. I wanted to live like I wasn’t afraid….

I came to this book full of reservations. I didn’t want to subject my still-tender heart to yet another story about the false glamour of lives addled with drugs and alcohol, because a lifetime among addicts and users will seriously fuck up a person’s sense of security, self-esteem, and ability to function in all sorts of relationships, and I’m tired of the glory popular culture ascribes to it. But the words “Grow Up” in the title pulled me a little closer. When I was going through my divorce in my early thirties, I dated an old friend – a casual, mutual, no-strings relationship that served us both well. One night over burgers, fries, and beers, we talked about his recent struggles.

“It’s been the most painful part of growing up,” he said.

Michelle Tea

Michelle Tea

Which took me by surprise – weren’t we already grown-up people? He worked in in-patient mental health – serious responsibility. I’d already lived enough to have been married for half a decade, gotten divorced, bought a house (which I was in the process of losing in the aftermath of my marriage), and have a kid. But he was right. “Grown up” doesn’t happen when the clock strikes 18. We’re just too underdeveloped in early adulthood to know the work that lies ahead. That conversation shifted my mission of recovery.

But that was years ago. I’ve lost touch with that fundamental principle: growing up. I’ve been in recovery for three years now, not from my own addictions but from what’s called the Family Disease of Alcoholism, the “F-D-of-A.” We work the same 12-steps they work in Alcoholics Anonymous. I’ve been lagging as of late, taking months to work on my 4th step – an inventory of my resentments. And here’s where the Universe does its magical thing. Here I am, stuck, struggling with the whole “higher power” or “HP” thing, which is an absolute cornerstone in 12-step recovery. But I’m reading Tea’s new book, a book full of wisdom earned through a commitment to recovery, and perhaps my perspective is shifting again.

One night I walked home from dinner alone, in tears; I was processing a new load of grief about my entry into motherhood coinciding with a failed marriage, and uncertainty about being in school, a parent, working – and it occurred to me that my HP is handing these things down now because I can handle it. And she’s not doing it so I’ll suffer, but because there is something worthy on the other side. I woke up early the next morning and read, coincidentally, Tea’s fourth essay: “I Have a Trust Fund From God – and So Do You!” She writes,

Prayer gets a bad rap in our culture, because there are a lot of nutty people abusing it…. Not shockingly, my own prayers avoid such negativity, tending toward the more floaty, nondenominational spiritual utterance – a request for help, guidance, or strength from the Big Unknown – a thank-you to no one in particular…. My most common prayer is probably Holy shit – thank you!

I washed my face with warm water and peppermint soap. Moisturized, applied makeup. Rinsed the tea flecks from my Write-Like-A-Motherfucker mug. Cooked sausage and carrots for breakfast. Walked downtown on a sunny 46-degree January morning to work. While my computer started, I scrawled in my notebook: This is why I read books! For their serendipitous messages that save my ass, become a mantra.

Revisiting the fourth essay, I found I’d underlined this passage:

Figure out what your own weird-ass, shaky, earnest, doubtful praying sounds like and do it in your own shower or at the gym or on the bus or while you do the dishes. The worst it’s going to do is make you feel a little dumb and maybe give you some additional insight into yourself. But at its best, it just might help you make some legitimate magic.

Which is exactly what I was doing the night before I read this, when I walked home and let my tears track mascara down my cheeks and acknowledged, finally, that there is a power greater than myself at work, not just for those other deserving people, but for me as well.

“Through repeat failures and moments of bruised revelation,” Tea writes, “I have mastered the art of doing things differently and getting different results…. I hope that what I’ve lived and what I’ve learned serve to make your own messy journey to adulthood a little less rocky, a little less lonely.”

Indeed, it does, Michelle Tea. And Holy shit – thank you!


Samantha Claire Updegrave launched her writing career in high school with self-published cut-n’-paste ‘zines, and now her work appears in High Country News, Bitch magazine, Literary Mama, Hip Mama, and various blogs. She is an urban planner, MFA candidate, and an assistant editor for Soundings Review. When not tethered to a desk, she can be found stomping around Seattle with her little 5-year-old T-Rex. Find her online at samanthaupdegrave.wordpress.com, or on Twitter @scupdegrave. More from this author →