Those few years of living freely

Eleanor Ainge Roy has some advice for her youngest brother as she approaches the age of 25.

My youngest brother is a year off finishing high school, and already buckling under a deluge of questions: what will you do, where will you go, and how will you pay for it?

Blessed with youthful insouciance, he shrugs off these queries, and ignores all interested parties. The reality of actually considering what comes next is no doubt overwhelming, uncomfortable and at present best avoided.

It is only seven years ago that those same questions were directed at me. And without that devil-don't-care attitude, how I fretted. I left school a year early (I was skipped up), just as my brother will, at 17.

It is only once childhood is beyond our grasp that nostalgia kicks in, and we realise how precious those brief years of security and familial comfort were.

I felt grown-up when I left; ready, but now I wonder what the rush was. How life seems easier, less burdensome somehow, when there are five people to share the load.

I had one advantage - I knew what I wanted to do. I was impatient to be a journalist, to speed through university and apply for a job. Tangled up with this was a messy, heated yearning for adventure. After six stifling years of high school, I longed for the antithesis of order, punctuality and routine. My idea of freedom was rooted in Somerset Maugham's short stories: the Far East.

I told Dad and younger brother my plan, one semester of university in Wellington, and then six months of travel. They sulked, they pouted, and quickly eroded any confidence I had in my decision.

''You should stay here,'' said Dad.

''Yeah,'' seconded my brother, just a year younger than me.

''Stay in Wanaka."

''And what would I do in Wanaka?'' A long silence.

''Work in the vineyards?''

At the time, my family's lack of support seemed bizarre. They didn't like any plan I had, but could never suggest an alternative. Seven years later, I see the same thing happening to my brother.

''I'm going to drive trucks on farms in America,'' he'll say.


''I'm going to go to university."


''I'm going to be an actor in New York."

No. Don't make me laugh.

My family weren't helpful because they didn't want me to go.

They were protective. And yet how prohibitive protection can be. Since my youngest brother was 6 years old, I have never wanted him to grow up. His blond hair, green eyes and sweet nature are best suited to boyhood. Yet grown he has, and despite my reluctance for him to change, my desire to cocoon him in the innocence of childhood, he has improved with age. At every test, he has shown himself well equipped for adulthood, yet still I want to hold him back.

To make him understand that every choice he makes now will be his own, and every mistake or mis-step will bear his name.

It seems to be widely believed that the years succeeding high school define your future. That they are pivotal, important and irrevocable.

But I have come to disagree. Their evanescent nature makes them perfectly suited to experimentation: to stuffing things up and starting all over.

I'm pushing 25 now, and although I love my work, the time for empty summers and no responsibility is over. I didn't value it when I was 17; I felt it was ''wasted time''.

My eagerness to create a life, get a job and earn some money was grounded in a fear of falling behind. I lived - and still do live - by a noisy clock that is always telling me to hurry up.

I don't want this for my brother. If he asks me, I will tell him to do whatever the heck he pleases. If he chooses to drive trucks in America, I can help him sort out a Green Card. If he decides to be the next De Niro, we'll watch Taxi Driver and Raging Bull together.

He has a lifetime ahead of him to make sensible choices, but very few years to live by his dreams and his whims and his fancies.

• Eleanor Ainge Roy is a Dunedin journalist.


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