Today, I turn thirty four.
I sat down to write about what I’ve learned now that I am in my mid-thirties, to collect my thoughts going into this new year. I wanted to begin with something pithy — something along the lines of: “It’s true what they say: your 20s are about x, and your 30s are about y.” I scrolled through some of my more flippant reflections on “adulting” looking for inspiration. I even pecked out some questionable google searches: “quotes about yours 30s” and “difference between your 20s and 30s” in pursuit of some sort of hook, a kind of divining rod to help me discipline my thoughts into some semblance of linearity. Then I realized I was grasping at straws, because the truth is this: I am still much more unclear on my personal narrative than I thought I’d be at this age. I am now thirty-four, and while I’ve gotten better at living in the in-betweens, accommodating the unknowns, I still routinely wonder about the future: I can just as easily imagine myself living in Manhattan and raising mini here for the next ten or fifteen years as I can moving back to D.C. or settling in rural Virginia (a recalcitrant pipe dream of mine and Mr. Magpie’s when we are particularly world-weary). I can envision continuing in this blessed hybrid writer-stay-at-home-mom seat for the foreseeable future, or I can see myself one day shuttling back into the workforce for the right job. Will I be the mother to an only child, or will I bear the blessing of many? Will the writing of this blog lead to other kinds of writing, other productions, or will I remain in this happy lane?
I wrote the paragraph above, sat back in my white writing chair, and mused over it, noticing all at once the telling shift in grammar halfway through my run-down of possible alternate realities for my future: declaratives versus interrogatives. A revelation via punctuation mark: in my mid-thirties, I’m straddling two entirely plausible interpretations of the life I’ve lead thus far, and the one I’ll lead in the future–one the one hand, I view it as shaped by my own exertions and intentions, and on the other, handed to me by fate.
In my 20s, I felt I could do anything I set my mind to, and my jagged professional life stands as a testament to that unbridled ambition: a short-lived career in a hyper-boring (to me) off-shoot of government consulting; an advanced degree and aspirations for academia; then six years in the non-profit world, where I worked my way from consultant to executive director to chief innovation officer. As I dove into my my early 30s, I hubristically believed that I could continue hopscotching from one lane to the next, reimagining myself and re-braiding the story I told about my life as I went — and so I took an enormous leap and built a new business in the HR technology space.
Something happened around the building and running of that business, some health issues I struggled through, and the nearly simultaneous birth of minimagpie that led me to learn I had far less control than I had previously thought. I felt as though I was continuously bumping into, tangled up with, standing with my shoulder against forces much greater than I. Gone was my blind faith in the “when you wish upon a star” narrative, and so too the Thomas Jefferson corollary about success being 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration. Because I hadn’t been solely a dreamer — I’d been flat out slogging my way through things, and I still ended up shuttering our business. The only way for me to understand what happened in my early 30s was by renegotiating my understanding of the relationship between fate and personal agency — and those negotiations remain pending. And this is not to say that I feel I was dealt an ultra-tough hand or that life hasn’t afforded me many blessings; in fact, many of the unexpected happenings of the last few years have been happy ones. But there has been a reckoning, a change in the way I understand the way life unfolds. I’m not so forlorn or fatalistic as to say that I don’t think I exert some level of control over my life, and I especially believe I am able to shape my interactions with and relationships to others. But the bigger things? Like moving to New York or closing our business or writing this blog? I have come to see that these things are shaped — formed, even — by something much greater than my own intentions, much further out of my ken or reach. I choose to believe that that “greater thing” is God, but even still, I occasionally find myself groping for other, closer-in, more legible explanations — economic forces, social ones, environmental ones even — that might inform the way my life has played out thus far.
It’s funny to step back and think about myself and my own perception of my agency over time. In my 20s, I didn’t quite know who I was, but I believed I could do or be anything; I was amorphous, evolving — but the world around me felt crisp, knowable, navigable. In my 30s, I know who I am with a kind of true blue certainty (I am somebody!!!), but feel less convinced of my agency, less confident in my grasp on the world. It’s as if I went from being far-sighted to near-sighted; I I didn’t know what I didn’t know in my 20s, and now I know what I don’t know — and so my conviction in the shape of things has shifted, shrunk, concentrated in on only the small world around me, the narrow sphere in which I know that 1+1=2. The mathematics beyond skew.
Is this what happens to every woman in her 30s? The cultivation of a sort of inward quiet paired with a humbled, irresolute perspective on the broader sweep of life? Or is this the result of an idiosyncratic tumble of experiences that will gradually erode into a hardened sense for the ways of the world?
Either way, I can say this: my post yesterday notwithstanding, I do find it easier to stand still nowadays and take in what I have in front of me without the angst or anxiety or urgency I felt in my 20s for the next thing. I have faith that things will work out, though often not within the confines of my narrow intentions or visions. Friends ask us all the time what we plan to do in the future — will we move to the suburbs of New York City? Brooklyn? Will we buy or rent? Will we sell our car or keep it? Will we relocate to D.C.? Are we serious about our love of rural Virginia? What will we do about school for mini if we stay in Manhattan? Will I go back to work once mini is enrolled? To all of these things, I say I don’t know. I don’t know! I don’t know. And maybe it’s the fact that my former assurance in the order of things has dissolved and with it my frenetic energy worrying about how to order things just right — but there is a kind of shrugging peace that washes over me when I say: I don’t know, and that’s OK.
My Resolutions for My Thirty-Fourth Year…
Take in more museums. (The picture at the top is a gesture to that.) Even when the exhibits upset or baffle me, they’re worth the cognitive dissonance.
Make more time to read.
Get back into some rhythm of exercise.
Switch off my phone more frequently.
Go easier on myself.
Write a first draft of my book.
Know that if the only thing I accomplish in a day is ensuring that mini and Mr. Magpie feel loved and cared for, I have succeeded.
My Wishlist for My Thirty-Fourth Year…*
A bunch of fluffy white Yves Delorme towels.
P.S. When I turned 33…
P.P.P.S. These are going to be my birthday gift to myself. 70% OFF!!!!