I turned thirty-four recently. The age itself is pretty unremarkable, but I’m having a hard time wrapping my head around the fact that I’m heading to thirty-five. Thirty-five is one of those ages that I’ve always imbued with specific meaning. I remember my mom at thirty-five. That year my parents had two kids (one of them sick), huge emotional stressors, and not a ton of money. Perhaps because of that, thirty-five always seemed stayed and settled to me. Thirty-five felt heavy.
My mid-thirties aren’t feeling like that. Instead, it feels like freedom is in the air (even if it hasn’t quite arrived yet). I find myself dressing more daringly than I ever did in my twenties, partially because I finally have some disposable income, but mostly because I care less about what other people think. Because that is what my thirties brought—the freedom from wanting so badly to be liked. As women, we grow up with near-constant pressure to fit in, to make the other girls like us. I mean, what else are all the gossip and student counsel elections and prom queen crowns about? We outgrow it, and we don’t.
As I made the jump to working in a very public career in my late twenties and early thirties, that pressure mounted again, junior high style. If people didn’t like me, or didn’t like something I said, or how I ran my business, the Internet made sure to let me know. Now, in my mid-thirties, increasingly I find that I just don’t care. I value what people I love and respect think. But that pressure I’ve always felt to be loved by as many people as possible? Well, it’s not quite gone, but it seems to be leaving. And when you don’t care what every single person thinks of you, you’re free to create a life that actually means something to you.
The summer after I turned thirty, we went to Italy. It was something I’d always dreamed of doing, but never really thought I’d get a chance to do. The first morning we woke up in the mountain village of Nocelle on the Amalfi Coast, the view of the Mediterranean spread in front of us, as far as the eye could see. I remember trying to take it in, and then turning to David and whispering the words, “Once in a lifetime.” David looked back at me and said firmly, “Not once in a life time. We’ll do it again.” And we have, already, in various ways.
In that moment, emerging from a decade spent trying to figure out what on earth to do with my life, it felt like the world was our oyster. We were twenty-nine and thirty. We were celebrating our one-year wedding anniversary, and the rest of our lives together seemed laid out at our feet like that blanket of blue sea and sky.
I recently came across a blurb in a magazine about what it’s like to be fifty. “You practice saying yes,” the author said, “Because at fifty, you know you might not pass this way again.” Reading that, I flashed back to that moment on the mountaintop. In that moment I felt like I was at the beginning. That we had the rest of our lives together to pass this way again. Four years later, I’m thirty-four, I’ve been married five years and partnered for ten, and I have a one-and-a-half-year-old. These days, I feel like I’m starting to inhabit something like the middle. I’m not experiencing things for the first time, and I’m probably not experiencing them for the last time. I’m no longer young in a way that grabs all the attention walking down the street, but I still don’t look old enough for people to always take me seriously. I don’t know that I would call this middle age, but it is the start of the middle. It’s in between. While it seems nothing like the turbulent teenage years, I’m similarly suspended between one thing and another.
Teenage girls are my sprit animals. They are emotional, sometimes selfish, and often misunderstood creatures. But they’re in the process of figuring out who they are, of setting a value system, of trying to imagine their lives. At sixteen, the self I am now was emerging. I was discovering theatre, and I was in love for the first time. I was starting to realize that even though I’d spent my whole life at the top of the class, I was possibly going to use those smarts in a different, non-academic way. I had firmly held ideals about the importance of creativity and authenticity, about shaping a life you love with people you love in it. And I wasn’t wrong. I was in between two worlds, but I was on point.
I always assumed that I’d live out those teenage ideals in my young and carefree twenties. And I did, to the extent I could. I started theatre companies, threw galas, had terrible creative jobs, lived in a mice-filled apartment in Brooklyn, moved across the country, and later supported my boyfriend/husband through law school with a terrible job in an even worse economy. In short, I took risks, screwed up, and gave it my all. But I didn’t have a lot of freedom. I was broke, I had very little control over my career, I had quite a few terrible bosses, and I spent most of my energy trying to survive. As much as I wanted to build an authentic life, I mostly was struggling to pay my $500 rent and eat.
It turns out that it’s now, in the middle of two things, that I find myself a more stable version of my teenage self. In part because of those miserable, near-constant risks, I now find myself in a place where some of the questions are answered, at least for the moment. I know how I’m going to pay the bills, what my career is, who I’m partnered with, and what it’s like to have a kid. I also know that things could change at any moment, and that I have survived before, and could work to survive again.
I’m in the land of not-firsts, hopefully not-lasts. It’s good here. I know I have a purpose for existing, and it’s to raise my kid, love my partner, love my people, and try to do work that matters. Around here, we try to prioritize naps in hammocks when we can. Because we know cuddling a (big or small) person you love during a nap on a warm summer’s day is the whole point of this gig called life. We wear more absurd clothes. We care less about what people think.
And we’re hoping to get back to Nocelle one day soon, to look at the sea and the sky. We’re passing this way, (at least) one more time.