“It is not all bad, but it is not all good, it is not all ugly, but it is not all beautiful, it is life, life, life—the only thing that matters. It is savage, cruel, kind, noble, passionate, selfish, generous, stupid, ugly, beautiful, painful, joyous—it is all these, and more, and it’s all these I want to know and, by God, I shall, though they crucify me for it.”
-Thomas Wolfe’s Letters To His Mother
We all do it. We can’t help it really, it’s been so deeply ingrained in us—we must take stock. We must mark time and divide it up—plot it along the length of our lives. We’re told that time is linear and inflexible, and there are milestones that need to be reached at particular points along the way:
I am in my 20s so I should have a college degree and a job with a future. I am allowed to be this much lost.
I am in my 30s so I should be mating and procreating. I am allowed to feel much less lost.
I am middle-aged so that must mean it is exactly halfway gone for me and I should have most of the things I’ve planned for myself by now. I am allowed no more lostness.
Numbers and plans plotted on a graph, dots connected. Alarms set to remind me when I’ve missed one of those plotted points.
And those alarms always seem to go off around this time of year. I find it almost impossible not to assess—everything, in all directions, from every angle: Am I where I thought I be? Where I want to be? Where I should be? Do I have all the things I pictured I’d have? Do I even want those pictured things anymore? Where was I last year at this time and have I progressed enough? And if I haven’t, then shouldn’t I resolve to make up for that next year?
There’s this arbitrary line of demarcation coming up, and so that must mean that it’s time to count up all the things that can be counted and measure all the things that can be measured, and make one huge, overarching assessment of who I am and how far that is from who I want to be. And, of course, I have to know: how does it all measure up with where I’ve been told I should be by now?
And yet something else also occurs to me.
Fuck. That. Shit.
I worked very hard for a very long time to be “perfect,” and when I got into a good college, I thought I’d succeeded. I was arrogant and childish, and then life happened. Without getting into details (because I’m not ready to here), I watched a lot of things and people fall apart, and I lost faith in everything, especially myself. I was young and terrified and felt alone in a brand new way. And all those things out of which I’d made a religion–academics, achievement, “success”–I couldn’t remember why any of it mattered anymore.
So halfway through the first semester of my sophomore year, I dropped out of school.
I lost my way in my 20s. Over and over again, I looked in the wrong places for relief from all that goddamn fear. I wanted so badly to feel safe, and sometimes it’s the desperation for what we want most that prevents us from finding it. I kept taking one bad detour after another, and ended up in some very dark places where I thought I’d stay forever. I didn’t.
Somehow—impossibly—I made it out, made it here. I’m still scared but I try not to let that paralyze me. Still searching for something called home, but no longer think that anyone owes it to me. Still looking back toward all those detours but not allowing them to define me.
And yet with every re-start of the calendar, there occurs this inevitable and relentless assessment, almost without my consent, the results of which embarrass me and humble me and make me incredibly proud of myself.
- I’m 34 and graduated from college a year and a half ago.
- I don’t have a lot of money.
- I live alone for the first time in my life (and it’s fantastic).
- I don’t have children, and as of today I don’t plan on having any.
- I’m not married.
- I was published for the first time in October.
- I’m scared every day of my life.
- It bothers me that my life doesn’t look like most of the other 30-somethings’ that I know.
- I love that my life looks so different.
- I am so much further than I once was and so far away from where I want to be.
- Despite my constant complaints, if I’m being perfectly honest—I am the happiest that I’ve ever been in my life. It isn’t even close.
Mostly, I’ve made peace with the past. It took what it took to get me where I am, and where I am is a messy, ugly, scary place—that feels exactly right. So on Friday morning, I’m not making any grand gestures or resolutions. I’m going to wake up and do exactly what I’ve been doing–get my ass out of bed and try to be better than I was yesterday. Which, when I think about it, is actually a pretty big fucking deal.