This week I am thirty-four. I’ve logged one more year on that climb into my thirties, not quite old enough to be old, but certainly old enough to feel old. And as is the case each year with my birthday, I am looking both forwards and backwards, remembering where I was this time last year and this time last decade, wondering where on earth this path is leading me for my birthdays yet to come. So here it is, my requisite birthday post.
Eleven years ago this week I was in Greece, celebrating my birthday at a surprise party at a friend’s house in Kifissia, a northern suburb of Athens. There was American style cake and bad Greek weed and a long and loud afternoon spent on the third floor veranda overlooking the train station. Six years ago this week I was out to dinner in the back patio of a sushi joint in Downtown LA, dizzy on smoke and tequila shots with a mismatched group of friends spanning three distinct aspects of my identity as a Greek American, club kid, and art student. Four years ago I was eating Spanish food in Manhattan with my soon to be husband and his New York friends, staggering drunkenly from bar to bar to cab ride home. And two years ago I was living it up in Shanghai in what would ultimately be my last independent jaunt before parenthood, eating fried honey bees and other foods of indeterminate ingredients with my still adventurous brother and sister-in-law.
And then there is the present day. On the night of my birthday this week I nursed the first half of a beer while my husband and I traded shifts trying to convince the baby to go to sleep (her continued revenge for my trips out of town last month), and then slurped chicken pho while watching the end of a Giants game. For a birthday treat I allowed myself to take twenty minutes for a bath before bed instead of forcing myself to squeeze in more homework, and for the weekend I am considering – considering – a baby free day to hang out with friends, though I’m not sure really what I would do with that sort of free time, other than sneak into the other room to catch up on work of one kind or another. In all honesty, this year my birthday made me kind of sad.
I never used to get sad about birthdays because I always believed that getting older meant life would get better, because with age would come wisdom, success, independence, self-confidence. And these things have all come, I suppose, but I’m a bit less certain about whether or not this means that life has actually gotten better.
I thought that by the time I was thirty-five I would have it all figured out – husband, kids, career, friends – by the time I hit the downslope of my thirties these would all be settled and I’d get to just enjoy this prime time of my life – young enough to actually feel young, but old enough to know what’s what. As I write my way deeper into this project, though, I am discovering (and revealing to my audience, I believe) that with a year to go until that magic number I’ve been waiting for, I really don’t have it figured out. Even worse, I seem on so many days to be drifting further and further away from that goal.
My life is hard, and every week it seems I write about the way in which my life was hard that week. This week, of course, is no different: my workplace is in a state of turmoil that could result in people losing their jobs; I love my husband like he is my family and my best friend and a part of me, but marriage is challenging when there is a crying baby and never enough time for anything, not even sleep; I have been getting up after dawn and running less, my hair is beginning to go gray, and the wrinkles around my eyes are not just starting to appear, they are there. Birthday cupcakes are just not enough to change that landscape. I’m getting older, and all of a sudden it seems this process of aging is not so much fun as it used to be.
I have so many beautiful memories that enrich me still, like that kiss with Moonbear at the top of the Ewoldsen Trail in Big Sur five years, those lovely, empty winter holidays spent in Athens, those nine months of waking up throughout the night with the little infant Koukla curled up against me in bed. But focusing too much on these memories is a trap; looking too much toward my past is often such a slippery slope to doubts about my present. And while my present is undeniably difficult, there are still those broad, fulfilling aspects that somehow make all of the struggles and all of the stresses worthwhile – I love my job, despite its many challenges; I’m going on sixteen months of Koukla not yet outgrowing those big baby monkey hugs; and at almost four years, my marriage continues to grow and evolve by the day.
Sometimes I wonder if I am always looking for the upside of things just to give myself a nice, clean tie-it-all-together moment at the end of each post. While I think there may be some truth to that, I also think I am discovering that my neat little wrap up is not so much a literary device as it is a survival skill. I can focus on all of the fun and crazy things I did in my youth (or even just in the year before I got pregnant), and I can indulge myself by confessing that lately my life is so very very difficult that I sometimes don’t know how I’m going to go on. But if all I do is dream of my oh-so-fun past or complain about my oh-so-hard present, then my future will be nothing but further continuation of these nostalgic daydreams and difficult realities.
It’s not just for the sake of balancing out a text that I need to find my happy ending, it’s for the sake of my own well-being. Because instead of going to bed now feeling disappointed in my present day, I will go to bed feeling hopeful that tomorrow will bring something better or different, or at the very least leave me with yet another dose of hope.