Yesterday was my birthday and I turned thirty-five, and much in the way it takes me six months to write the correct year when I’m dating my checks, I think it’s going to be a while before I let that number sink in. Thirty-five. 35. Five plus thirty. Even now I had to do the math again because it just doesn’t sound right. Doesn’t feel right. Most of the time I still think of myself as in the phase that immediately follows college, forgetting that in the intervening years I’ve moved states, built a career, gotten married, bought a house, had some kids (but not in that order), and it’s actually been thirteen years since I graduated. No twenty-two-year-old would voluntarily share a demographic with me.
I’ve heard real, live, not-paid-actor women swear they feel increasingly confident as they get older–”I don’t care what other people think of me anymore! Shazam! *pierces something*”–but I feel a little backward because the older I get the less sure I am that I have any idea what I’m doing. Growing up, I had a relatively narrow view of the world and a relatively high opinion of myself, so I didn’t worry much about the things I worry about now: fitting in, saying the right thing, being a good citizen of the world, being a good citizen of my community of family and friends, etc. I’m not quite sure why I’m thus afflicted at this advanced age, but I suspect it’s mostly perspective. When I used to look in the mirror, I could focus on myself and nothing more, and most of the time I really liked what I saw. Now, I still like what I see (more or less; the muffin top is not my favorite), but I’m also aware of the whole reflection–myself within a context, against a background of people and places and issues and feelings and many things I can’t control and many others I can, which is sometimes worse.
Maybe I’m just feeling the weight of having to make decisions for a family instead of just myself. Or maybe it’s that the stakes feel higher because time is shorter. Like, there’s lots of wiggle room for mistakes when you’re twenty-two because you have a lot of time to correct them? Or because you’re not evening thinking of the world in those terms because time is infinite and you’re invincible?
What you might recognize as a common dayplanner I call an “exobrain,” and I’m a slave to it. I can’t help but see every day as part of a countdown to some beginning or ending. First swimming lesson. Last day of preschool. First day of kindergarten. Last day of nursing a baby. Maybe it’s just one of those years (have you also found that everything feels bigger when you have small children?), or maybe I’m just allowing myself too much aimless pondering and should get a hobby that’s incompatible with navelgazing. Maybe this is the seed of a classic midlife crisis. Maybe I’m addicted to metaphors.
It’s just…these firsts and lasts and all the moments in between lay over us like the thinnest sheets of tinted glass, and we’re the same but different but the same but different but the same. We’re variations on a theme. We’re ourselves but not. We’re thirty-five but we’re still twenty-two. Still twelve. Still choosing the perfect outfit for our own first day of kindergarten. “Still,” not merely “also.”
Milestones (including all those pesky invented ones) come and go and come and go and it’s not like a swing going back and forth on a stationary hinge but like a tetherball, circling, circling, circling. The ball is the same, but it doesn’t feel like that to the ball as its tether gets shorter and shorter and it senses itself moving closer to and higher up the pole as the speed and g-force increase more and more until SMACK, it hits the pole with a dull clang. Maybe when we die life doesn’t flash before our eyes but unwinds like a tetherball, slowly, showing us everything backward until we’re at the beginning again, experiencing our childhoods in the wide, lazy circle that made every day feel thirty-five years long. Maybe heaven is a return to childhood timekeeping but with the wisdom of old age.
Well! That got morbid! (Yes, definitely a midlife crisis, then.) The thing is, I’m not sad to be thirty-five, just incredulous. Not having my shit together keeps me feeling young, I guess? I’m at least glad I’m able to say, “But I don’t feel thirty-five” and have that be a good thing. At thirty-five, I’m able to be proud of what I’ve accomplished and grateful for the many things that have fallen in my lap. I’m lucky to have made a few excellent permanent decisions (hello, stupendous husband and outstanding children!) and to have the peace of mind to deal with everything else. As the great Cat Stevens once crooned: “I’m old but I’m happy.” There’s still some swing in this old pony.
(Obligatory birthday photo.)