On Panic vs. Control, Minivans, Wise Women and REM

One thing that’s problematic about being a woman who wants children and is thirty and single is that (it can sometimes seem as though) the most vivid thing on the horizon is being a woman who wants children and is thirty-one and single.

My birthday, as many of you know, isn’t until September. But I did have a moment. One of those early-waking, half-conscious moments, a few weeks ago, when it randomly, jarringly occurred to me that I will turn thirty-one, and that I will turn thirty-one in less than half of a year, and that I am now, pretty much irreversibly, in my thirties.

It is impossible to write (or, I presume, read) this without a fistful of tired cultural references springing to mind. For me (in addition to every Sex and the City episode ever) it’s that scene from When Harry Met Sally:┬áthe one when Meg Ryan’s Sally finds out her ex is getting married and calls up Billy Crystal’s Harry in a hysterical, breathless panic over the fact that she will, someday, turn forty.

In other words, I feel, culturally, as though I should be panicked about this. Or at least, preparing to panic, thinking about panicking, somehow, loosely or narrowly contemplating the idea of panic.

I’m not.

I would tell you that I’m not trying to gloat about this, but it wouldn’t, completely, be true. When you manage, even for a few moments, to avoid a trap that seems set by an entire hemisphere of culture, I think you’re entitled to a little boasting. So there.

I could also offer you a varied list of reasons, some more sincere than others, to explain why I am not panicking. But they are irrelevant.

Except for one: it isn’t useful.

“There are a lot of things that people want in life.”

I was having lunch with my friend K, one of the beloved Wise Older Women I have been feeling, lately, so thankful to know, at a new cafe by the Macalester campus. Between bites of couscous and chicken salad I tossed out fond, nostalgic glances toward the flannels-and-glasses-wearing-boys and girls in cardigans and layered bangs. (I know you!)

K went on: “But not all of them are things we can control.”

(You see why I am so thankful for women like her.)

I began, immediately to make lists. Mostly, because they are less bewildering and anxiety-inducing, of the things that are within my power. A sampling:

The length of my hair (At this time: long!).
My commitment to writing. (Present.)
The ferocity with which I cling to the Beautiful Wise Women in my life. (Extreme.)
Where I want to live. (Freedom is daunting!)
How often I do yoga. (As much as possible.)

You get the idea.

These aims, K reminded me, these are the ones that I, that all of us, need to cling to.

It’s hard, of course, not to let the other kind of goals fill up a lot of mental and emotional space: achieving a certain level of recognition, for example, or finding a particular version of family. Desires that are valid, desires that run deep. But not desires that we can reasonably expect to fulfill.

“You have to think of those things as gifts,” K said. “That may or may not come.”

Driving home (in, ps, the minivan I am buying from her — because, why yes, at a moment in which I could not be less close to the suburban ideal of motherhood and children, I am buying the ultimate symbol of such things: a minivan. discuss.), I turned on the radio just as REM’s cover of I Am Superman came on; and, as traffic began to slow by that wretched 11th Street/Lyndale exit into uptown. I began to feel that tide of anxiety that surges every time I wind up in highway traffic. And I thought of K’s advice: to focus on the things I can control.

And I thought of the fact that rush hour traffic is distinctly not among those things, while listening to loud music in a minivan, now, is.

And instead of anxious, or panicked, I felt, suddenly, flush with gratitude: for the oversized (perfect for moving!) vehicle soon to be mine, for K and the other smart and generous women I am making it my life’s work to collect, for the handful of goals (hair! books!) I felt newly motivated to pursue.

And, as always, most importantly, for Michael Stipe.

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