Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Thoughts on turning thirty

Photo by Robin Robokow

Today is my thirtieth birthday.

Can I tell you how excited I am? I've been waiting several years now for this, so that when people inevitably ask me if I'm in high school, or say I'm too young to be a pastor or drink or be married or have five years' job experience--I can retort with I'm thirty, which is a lot more of a zinger than I'm twenty-nine.

At three I tried to hop on a Paris subway car by myself; at sixteen I begged to be able to drive myself to my own appointments. Ever since, I've always been pushing for more independence and responsibility. I've dealt with obstacles and maybe embarrassment when I feel people question me about whether I'm competent to handle certain tasks. I've never found a way to graciously respond when people take me for an amateur in a place where I'm in charge. And now I'm thirty. Surely that's worth some respect.

There's more to it, of course.

I like the thought of getting older, maybe wiser. I look forward to the days when, God-willing, I'm forty or fifty or sixty or seventy. It might be nice to feel settled somewhere, or to hold a job for more than three years, or to be relieved of the pressure of representing to everyone the future generation. It might be nice to sit on a porch of a home I've lived in for ten years. It might be nice to stop worrying about who I'm going to be, and relax into who I am already.

In a society that prizes the novelty of youth, I'm not concerned about becoming boring or irrelevant. If ever someone inspires me to think "I want to be like her," it's usually a woman whose hair has begun to gray. She is usually thoughtful about her own experiences, the painful and the beautiful. She has a sense of connectedness to all the people she has known, and they have each made her who she is. She carries an inner silence that can only come from years of practice.


Many of my friends are sad to be hitting this milestone. Thirty, to someone still trying to find a career or just a stable job, may seem daunting, like a deadline she never knew until it had passed. Thirty to a single woman may bring fear of loneliness, of being forgotten by friends, of never finding the "right" person. That's real fear and real pain, and I can't pretend to speak to that.

But I have regrets, too, leaving my twenties.

I can go back to Tanzania one day, and maybe even move or work in East Africa again, which will be its own adventure. But I can't go back to the free and weightless person I was there. I can visit friends and see the homes they own and their pets and children, which is a new kind of joy. But I can't be a roommate again in the group house with a garden and potluck dinners and parties full of laughter. I can't be a young college grad who could take a job in any city, move to be near friends on a whim. There may be new choirs or a book clubs or yoga classes. But I have less leisure to play piano or join an intramural soccer team. And it's hard to imagine now that I'll ever spend a season working on an organic farm learning to grow vegetables, or get a degree in creative writing or counseling or music.

The world is no longer quite all ahead of me. Trajectories are set in motion, and mostly that is joy. But, too, moving forward always means leaving something behind.


This season brings constant reminders of mortality. The fragility of babies in the womb, the sudden death of a healthy adult at 35 or 60. As much as I may speak with bravado and whitewashed idealism about the wisdom of the old, I am standing right here in the middle of the messiness of it all, mourning those I have lost, mourning those others have lost. My own body joins the crowd of evidence. Two of my teeth are literally falling out. My joints are getting weak. My body is less resilient after red-eye flights than it once was.

Two weeks ago a cross was made on my forehead, the words spoken over me, "You are dust, and to dust you shall return." And this is always true, and perhaps every year it becomes more true. My mortality is not something I fear, exactly. Except that in the moments in which I believe I am about to die--moments on highways, or moments of walking alone in the dark, or moments suspended in the air as I fly off the front of my bike--I am struck with a panic that I have not loved as I might, I have not made peace with all, I have left too many messes on my floor and broken pieces in my journey.

So getting older is as treacherous as it is beguiling, bringing the fear of things that have not yet been and may never be.

But mortality is also invitational. Why not stop pretending, learn to be transparent to each other and to God? Why not speak what we really feel? The liminal moments, the fearful moments, the vulnerable moments are the ones that make me put aside the homework and shake off anxiety about trivial matters and embrace all that is beautiful and holy and gift.


In the end the truth, I think, is that whether you're hankering to be older, like me, or longing for the days gone by when the world was spread before you and your life plan had not yet been derailed...it's not about age at all, really.

What I mean is that I think perhaps the challenge given to us all is how to love the very ground we are resting our feet on at this moment. Contentment does come from being seventy and having achieved it all, but from learning the art of gratitude. Respect does not come to me from a snarky I'm thirty I throw our to the world, but from being grounded and centered no matter how people see me. Inner silence won't suddenly appear at seventy if I don't cultivate it now.

So today I am going to hug a friend, and eat fresh food, and call my mom, and say a prayer. Today I am going to volunteer at a food pantry and study for a midterm. I am going to love this day that has been given, add my best to it, and try not to put my hope in the number that has been assigned to it.

But just in case you were wondering...that number is thirty.

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