On Big Birthdays, Reflections, and Extraneous Pillows

Like most days, on the first day of my thirties, I did some things. These include (but are not limited to):

  • consuming: an almond croissant the size of Rhode Island; Kir Royals at home and a three-course fancy dinner out with pals
  • my first FaceTime with family in Philadelphia
  • a lakeside meltdown, catalyzed by an argument over a lamp smaller than my tricep (+ a week of insomnia + turning thirty)
  • a resulting bout of retail therapy (producing: one CB2 accent pillow and a used collection of Alice Munro. hello, aging!)
  • a copious amount of vaguely prompted tears

Also, between hysterics, some (inevitable) reflection.

I know that the numerical aspect of aging is not worth considering—thirty means something quite different to me than it does to various others my same age, just as seventy is a whole different set of experiences for most men than it is my fit, youthful father.

(To say nothing of what a hundred and three looks like on my grandmother, who, though lacking the dinner routine of this guy, lives alone and has better vision, probably, than you.)

And yet, it’s hard to escape that birthdays–particularly those with zeroes placed at the end–provoke introspection. They are markers. And whether we like it or not, they prompt us to compare ourselves: with who we’ve been, with those around us, with the expectations we harbored earlier of how things would be. (Also, for me at least, evidently, to lose my shit.)

Perhaps it is moving back to a place where I lived as a far different (read: younger) version of myself. (A subject, indeed for another story.) Perhaps it’s just been anticipating the tail end of my Extremely Late Twenties. Whatever the reason, my head has been there a lot lately–in that place of comparing who I thought I’d be with who I’ve become.

In memory, as a college student just a few miles from where I sit now, my friends and I did not just expect Big Things of ourselves–we assumed them. We were vessels of curiosity and desire, thrilling about our radically left campus, our minds blown daily by one or two joints and the breathless deconstruction of Western teachings most of us had never actually absorbed.

We were going to change the world. Make a difference. Be exceptional. We held ourselves above such cliches, of course, but the ambitions they contain were in the ether: as ever-present as greasy cafeteria food and caffeinated all-nighters.

We graduated. We got jobs, went to grad school, dispersed around the country–to the cities we’d fled or new ones we’d found. We realized, in some gradual but penetrating way, that aspiring to happiness was challenge enough.

We got jaded? Gave up? Sold out?

The night before my birthday, crumpled in bed, I moaned that I wasn’t sure what had happened; that I have yet to fully abandon these idealistic ambitions–that I still do aspire to fame, to changing lives, of being, to being, somehow, exceptional. And still, or perhaps more, now that I’ve learned how complicated everything is, I don’t even know what these ambitions mean.

Is it enough, say, to have a positive influence on a few aspiring writers? Is it enough to have a few dozen, or hundred, or (not that I would know) thousands of people reading your work? Is it enough to be loved? By how many? What will make me, make one, feel fulfilled? Where do we accept compromise between our youthful ambitions and adult limits?

A writing teacher once told me an anecdote (one I’ve probably recounted before) about a Nobel-prize winning author confiding her reaction to a book critic who had commended her recent novel as her “best in years.” (“What,” the author bemoaned, “Was my last book no good?”)

In other words, it is never enough. And to the extent that it doesn’t make us bitter, that’s okay: we should always strive and reach and seek. We will always question and crumple and crave and wrestle and soothe.

I’m okay with that. Even if, every so often, it results in extraneous pillows and tears.

I guess the only thing I can ask of aging is that along with the doubts comes gratitude–for making tea in the mornings and phone calls with loved ones in the afternoon and the mental/physical health that allows me the privilege to probe as I, as so many of us, can’t help but do.