There is an a species of immortal jellyfish out there in the far-flung depths of the ocean (Turritopsis dohrnii). I don’t mean it’s immortal in an allegorical sense, like “your fifth studio album was amazing, MC Jellyfish, it’ll make you immortal in the world of hiphop” or “Jellyfish, your pitching performance in game five of the World Series will immortalise you in Cleveland Guardians history.” No, I’m far too sober to make allegories right now. I mean it literally: the damn jellyfish is immortal. If nothing eats it (their predators are turtles and Cantonese restaurants) then it can just… go on living… forever. It’s really rare, but it’s still an amazing critter to learn about.
When the new year turned a few hours ago, we were in our apartment here in Barcelona. This is the first time in about 42 years that I’ve spent the new year in a country other than the US, which is absolutely not an interesting fact. What is slightly more interesting is that, given my age of 43 years, I am likely more than halfway through my natural life. I mean, I hope not, I hope I stick around for a long long time as a burden to society and to see my enemies buried before me, but the actuarial tables say otherwise. What is *really* interesting, at least to me, is that I’m totally cool with being middle aged.
I always thought I would dread my middle years; every sitcom and Dave Barry book I ever read said that I would experience crisis upon crisis, and holy moly were they wrong. I go through emotional crises all the time, mind you, but the thing is that I’ve been having them since I was like 13, so middle ages have been nothing new. In fact, I have a LOT fewer crises now, and the sudden drop in crises lately is surprising.
I used to live in an apartment building where the two people next door (brother/sister? married couple? pair of parrots? I have no idea) would yell at each other almost every day about the TV shows they were watching. One weekend they were quiet for about three days straight, I got really really concerned and went and knocked on the door. Turns out they bought headphones for each of them and now they watch different shows in silence. Anyway. That’s what this feels like to me, having a vastly reduced amount of angst: its like the neighbours in my head are quiet.
My wife and I talked about it, and there are probably a number of causes for this internal relative calm:
1) an increased sense of peace about who I am stemming from personal growth and a loving family life,
3) age-related memory loss of any angst or self-esteem issues, 4) legal drugs,
5) a recent ADHD diagnosis which just makes EVERYTHING MAKES SENSE NOW HOLY CRAP THATS WHY I AM THE WAY I AM,
6) the cafe next door makes that sandwich I like.
The way the immortal jellyfish works is that, during their life, they alternate between two phases, a polyp and a medusa phase. The polyp phase is where they stay rooted to the ocean floor, like a coral or an anemone. The medusa phase is what most jellyfish you think are are in, they float around in the water column eating smaller sea creatures or, on Level 1-2, Mario and Luigi.
In fact, jellyfish and corals are all Cnidarians, a phylum of goopy animals where none of them have spines or faces or credit scores or anything. They’re all basically waterlogged grocery bags that are either filled with rocks (corals) or spicy needles (jellyfish). Most Cnidarians start off swimming around in the water column when their parents squirt them and their thousand of siblings into the ocean, but then each species kind of picks a lane, Polyp or Medusa, and then they’re like that for the rest of their lives. They either pick a spot and buy some real estate for cash (no credit score for a mortgage, remember) or they roam the earth like David Carradine and the Incredible Hulk.
That’s where the immortal jellyfish comes in: they spend some type in the polyp stage, then, when the environmental cues change in certain ways, they cut their roots and drift in the ocean for a while. When they find a good spot, they anchor again. Ad nauseam, Ad infinitum, until they’re eaten or the world ends.
Back in Chicago, we bought a two bedroom condo near the kids school, and, for all intents and purposes, probably looked like we were settling down for a long while. The truth, though, is that we’d been hoping to live out of the country for a bit, and when we saw a chance to move to Barcelona with our current jobs, we grabbed it. Our plan is to move back to Chicago after a few years out here, polyp/medusa/polyp.
We’ve become, in our mortal and warm-blooded way, a reflection of the immortal jellyfish. And, when I stop and think about it, this isn’t just our family: I think this applies to most folks, at least sometimes. All of us on this side of heaven are continuously pulling up stakes and moving when the environment requires it. Job change, marriage, divorce, war, flood, school admissions, political crackdowns, all these environmental perturbations knock us out of our comfort zone and make our secure footholds seem less secure that we previously thought. The polyp sometimes looks around and says to herself, “I better medusa the hell out of this situation.” And the medusa looks around sometimes and says, “this place seems like a good spot to rest and stretch my legs for a little while.”
Maybe that’s why it feels ok being middle aged; I’m more comfortable with either where I’m at or who I am. For those of us confronting the realisation that we’re on the other side of the inflection point of a lifetime, it is easier to handle the medusa phase, to be jostled by politics and expenses and work and unemployment, if one is emotionally in polyp phase, if one can be more at peace with the imperfect, mortal, human beings that we are. Like the Cnidarians, we’re just water-logged bags of bones and anxiety, and I find myself to be more at peace the more comfortable I am with that fact.
In the first paragraph, I told a lie. I said that the immortal jellyfish are rare, that they are found in the deep depths of the ocean. That’s not true: they’re everywhere. They’ve spread all over the world, via the circulation of the ocean and as stowaways in ship ballast tanks. Everyone of us, emotionally and physically, is swinging between polyp and medusa phase, for all our lives, and either we notice that we are doing it, or the jellyfish jsut hide in our own mental ballast tanks.
I hope you and yours have a wonderful 2022. I hope that you find deep roots when you can grow and be safe and warm. If, instead, you need to change where or who you are, then I hope that your road is bright and the wind is at your back. And I hope, whatever stage of life you are in, that you know that the ocean is a weirder and more wonderful place with you in it.
I am an unreliable narrator. You’re lucky I remembered to include this link: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Turritopsis_dohrnii#Distribution_and_invasion
Photo Credit: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Turritopsis_dohrnii.jpg