I’ve had a lot of great birthdays, but this was not one of them. A few weeks into 32, I could feel a drip, drip of dread for 33. I’ve taken birthdays as they’ve come, never giving in too much to the weight carried by certain ages and milestones, yet, somehow, the idea of 33 felt uncomfortable to me.
I remember 23 so starkly because it felt like the beginning of everything. I had just finished graduate school and had moved to the city that would become my home for the next decade. That birthday would relaunch the friendship that would eventually become a marriage. I lived in the same neighborhood as my best friend, and I started a job that made me realize it was possible to be a do-gooder and get paid for it.
In those 10 years, I’ve done a lot of things I’m proud of, and experienced more adventures than I ever thought possible. I’ve gotten to watch my friends grow and change, and pursue their dreams, and have families, and find confidence in their contributions. And best of all, I wake up every day beside the smartest person I know.
Which makes it hard to pinpoint exactly why 33 is so unsettling.
This weekend we had planned to getaway to Asheville and I hoped it would be a welcome distraction from my discomfort. Instead, Hurricane Harvey happened, and David volunteered to go assist. The weekend was cut short, and I suddenly found myself with a 10-hour drive back home, alone with my thoughts.
I filled the first few hours with podcasts and music (the rental car radio seemed to only broadcast Christian evangelists) and a steady meditation of the changing landscape, but deep into my trip I started to lose focus. About 2 hours from home—a part of the trip I know well—I found that I was more than 30 miles past a critical turn. I suddenly felt disoriented, and realized I had been traveling in a fog for the past hour. How had I missed this turn? Where was I now?
With full darkness upon me, and nary a cellphone signal in my now rural surroundings, I tried to quell the rising panic. I turned off the radio and I focused on the road ahead, searching for a literal sign. In the quiet, I could no longer ignore my internal unease.
What’s next? What’s next? What’s next? I pondered.
I had spent my whole life working towards a future I had already achieved, then I had gone on autopilot. I had stopped learning new things. I had stopped thinking ten steps ahead. I yearned for nothing because my yearning had been fulfilled. It suddenly felt as if my dreams had been too small.
I started thinking about all the things that lived far beyond the life I had imagined for myself (things too big and audacious to name) and wondered if it would be possible to reset the finish line. What would that look like? Was I ready for the inevitable steps backwards and sideways? The hurt of rejection? The hours and sweat it would require?
A few minutes later, I regained the scantest signal and a text message from my friend arrived eager to know if I had found my way back to the main road yet. A sign for my missed turn came into view, and I made a left towards home.
This morning I woke up to feelings that are still complicated, but somehow also attached to purpose.
So, what happens next?
To be honest, I’m not sure. And for that, I’m glad.