Growing old, growing up hurts; this is a reality of life.
Growing up, maturing, going out into the adult world will hurt.
They don’t tell you this at graduation, the commencement speaker does not add such a statement to the litany of positive affirmations that are so bland and surface that they really mean nothing. Yet I would argue that it is a truth with which we all grapple. Growing old is difficult. Part of the tragedy of such a reality is that we cannot avoid it; we are all getting older and are growing up in our own ways and there really is not anything we can do to avoid it (except die, which I am not at all advocating!). There are a number of mediums (movies, art forms, books, songs, etc.) that wrestle with this truth of existence. Some deal with this reality with a Pollyannaish kind of optimism telling the audience that it is all going to be ok and there are plenty of rainbows and unicorns to be found in adulthood if you just look hard enough. Life is a giant PEZ dispenser popping out sweet pill goodness. Some people actually believe this crap. Some tell you that you only have to hold onto your youthful idealism and then you will never have to face the cold, harsh reality of life in its fullest. Keep wearing the hip-hugging jeans, the t-shirts with Hasbro toys on the front, and the ironic 1970s movie references because then you are still holding onto your youth (or at least a very sad dream and illusion). Then there are those works that looks the specter of aging and maturing in the face with all the good and horror that it has to offer and say, “bring it on.” These are people who embrace the truth that growing old is painful and do not run away. I feel that Karen Russell’s book Swamplandia! offers this realistic, macabre look at the travails of becoming an adult and does not run from the reality of the pain of maturing.
Warning, spoilers abound!
What I found great about Russell’s book is that it offers a realistic view of life through very metaphorical, fantastical, and mystical themes. In Swamplandia! we meet a family of alligator wrestlers running a perverse kind of theme park in the Florida Everglades, living a dream and a lie in its greatest fashion complete with security blankets of multiple kinds. It is after the mother of this family dies that the rest have to grow up and start to encounter the pain as well as the wonder of life. One by one each character in Russell’s book has to search, take chances, and try to find their own way in this new, uncharted life. Each one suffers, each one loses something, and each one grows. The brother endures insult and injury working at a rival park experiencing the “real world” like a bucket of ice water poured on top of his head (and he wasn’t even challenged to do so). The older daughter tries to escape to a forgotten time with a ghost who promises love forever only to be left at the altar. The youngest daughter, searching for her sister, joins with a magical “birdman” in an almost Homeric Odyssey until she realizes that her traveling companion is nothing more than a perverted, lost, old man. Each travel, each struggle, and each suffer as they leave the theme park of their youth and enter into the real world.
And there is no happy ending.
This is where I find Russell’s book refreshing and difficult. There isn’t a sad, tragic ending, but things are not brought to a satisfying conclusion. With my first read I found myself looking for the happy conclusion where everyone was able to return to their home, to their comforts, and to their illusions that they once knew. I yearned for a happy ending and was found wanting. It is not a tragic ending. It is not an ending with a body count rivaling many movies today, but it was not a happy, return to glory ending. So I had to sit with the uncomfortable place where Russell leaves the reader.
It is a real ending. It is an ending that fits life. We work, we struggle, we do well, or we fail and then we continue. This is life as the great existentialists, Camus or Sartre, would describe it (without the French accent, beret, and cigarette). Perhaps they would applaud such a realistic work even as it drips with metaphor and symbolism. It is a book that speaks to the difficulty of growing up in a realistic way, and after pondering, musing, and reflecting, I have found the ending refreshing and perhaps instructive.
With each character they had to endure their own journey in their own way. Yet to a degree they held to their roots, to who they were. One saves a girl from drowning due in part, to his training wrestling alligators. Another survives in the Everglade wilderness because of her knowledge in the land, and another escapes danger through an alligator pit because of her training and upbringing. We move on, but we do not leave our childhood. They are our roots. They are in large part who we are for better or worse. Trying to leave is painful and important, yet what we learn, who we are can help us survive the journey and the next stage of life and we never fully leave who we are.
Now for the theological bit: think about conversion. When we hear the word, “conversion” we often think that it is referring to a complete change of the person/thing in question. One converts from one position to another. We would not usually think about conversion in the sense of growing up, yet perhaps we should. I am not suggesting that religious conversion necessarily speaks to a move from adolescence (unbelieving) to adulthood (believing). I have had too many interactions with winey, annoying, immature Christians to make such a statement. What I am suggesting that even though there a change does occur through conversion (religious or otherwise), there is always that aspect of the individual that stays the same. That person still has the memories, the experiences, the values and ideals that influenced the conversion in the first place. Yes, the person has changed, but there still is the sameness that continues in the converted. The characters in Swamplandia! were changed through their experience, but continued to carry and stay connected with their identity as it was shaped in the swamps and with the alligators.
In addition to this, conversion is not easy. Part of the work of conversion is trying to navigate one’s life with a new identity. Now that you believe “x” how will you spend your evenings, your weekends, and eat your pig? Post-conversion, one needs to navigate one’s life in new and different ways. This is not easy but is a reality of moving from one place to another. In evangelical circles conversion is painted as a moment where one experiences a profound experience, has a lightning flash, mountaintop moment, and is a new and changed person. While this experience may happen, it is only a part of one’s conversion. Work is needed to get to that moment and work is needed after that moment. Things will be lost just as they are gained; this is a reality of conversion.
So from a theological perspective we can see how Russell’s book may speak to the experience of conversion. Not the powerful, wonderful, flash-in-a-moment conversion where one minute you are a regular person and the next you are a bundle of nutrients for an alligator, but the slow, deliberate process of moving from one place of belief to another and all of the pain and beauty that such a process takes.
So I encourage all neophyte believers of whatever doctrine, belief, or faith tradition to read Swamplandia! and ask yourself what it is that you are going to have to let go of, what is it that you are going to have to do differently, and where is it going to hurt the most in order to stay true to your newly found convictions of faith.