What it means to get older
26 July 2019
Today I am thirty-eight years old, which means that I have accumulated thirty-eight years’ worth of facts, trivia and mythology about what my birthday means. My birthstone is a ruby (represents positive energy, passion and prosperity). My astrological sign is Leo (represents confidence, ambition and self-centeredness). I share my birthday with Helen Mirren (heck yeah), Stanley Kubrick (checks out) and Kevin Spacey (unfortunate). I was born under a significant star, destined for greatness in the company of an elite—just like everyone else, in one way or another.
No matter how old I get, there is always a tug on my attention when my birthday comes around. Maybe those childhood habits of looking forward to a day when the world is centered around you die hard. Maybe if you are in a world that has made you feel overlooked, you get used to finding something that is yours, that you can hold on to and wield as both sword and shield, and maybe that habit has power. And that power doesn’t get old.
But it does get more confusing. As an adult, what are you celebrating when it’s your birthday? What are you signifying? That you’re still important? That you still deserve attention? That you’re still special? Those would all seem to be needs better left behind in childhood, if common wisdom were to be trusted. You grow up and and grow out of needing things like that.
Today I am thirty-eight years old and I took the day off of work. I have no party planned or any event of any extravagance. I plan to spend the day alone, quietly doing small things that I like to do. A particularly grown-up compromise between overlooking and celebrating. A precise balance between the time when age was something to anticipate and the time when age is something you have to think about.
It took a long time for my process of getting older to grow fangs. During much of my life, the future was a promise, defined by its potential to be different from the present. I raced to get older. There was always something to get away from, and disappointment about how long it was taking to get to something better was pacified by the fact there was always tomorrow.
Optimism, however, does not prepare you for the day you start to wonder when you’ll have more days behind you than ahead of you. It doesn’t prepare you for watching your mother die at age fifty-five or devoting all your energy to your daughter’s wellbeing or considering how much damage you have to undo before your own life really begins. I was always out of step with common milestones. I was a late bloomer who crashed into early struggling single motherhood who never married who will effectively be done raising a kid in her early forties who still has a whole life ahead of her. I did everything out of order, I don’t belong to any cohort of people my own age experiencing similar phases. I have to sort out my own relationship to my accumulated days, every year, one birthday at a time.
Today I am thirty-eight years old and I have a long list of things I never did. I have another list of things I have done, but those don’t seem to count. Those things were reactions. Those things were survival. I am proud of surviving, but survival isn’t life. Except maybe, with enough distance, it is. This is one of the things that you have to think about. Maybe, with enough time, you can even learn to celebrate it.
A bit of wisdom you gain as an adult is that there is no longer anyone else creating space for you, so you will often have to do it yourself. You will have to create your own foundation, the stability someone else should have given you but never did, and there’s no more time to be bitter about that. You have time for a lot more things yet, but not for resentment. You have to be more committed to repair than to blame. You have to be more dedicated to second chances than to guilt. You will have to create your own meanings and your own significance and your own celebrations, and you might have to do it all alone. You will have to make your own boundaries and your own plans. You will have to set aside a day for yourself and in it you will have to decide what you believe in. And you will have to not care if it makes sense to anyone else.
Today I am thirty-eight years old and I make note of the fact, not because it matters so much in the fact itself, but because I have the feeling that someday, off in the future, it will be meaningful that I did. One way or another.