Reflections on 38

Today is my 39th birthday. This time next year I’ll be turning 40, and I have a lot of different emotions surrounding that that I’m really just now beginning to process in earnest…but that’s a post for next year.

My theme for 38 was “be less certain,” which for me was a way of acknowledging both that sitting with uncertainty is something I’ve always had trouble doing and that my need for certainty and tendency to manufacture it where it doesn’t already exist is a form of emotional armor that doesn’t always serve me very well. My goal for most of my itinerant twenties was “belonging without attachment,” as I put it, based on the idea that I could be a fully formed person independent of the world around me but still have the connection and belonging that we all want and need. By making my world smaller I hoped that I could learn not to need other people and all the uncertainty that depending on them entails, and then somehow build on that foundation once I finally settled down and started building a community. I’ve realized intellectually for awhile now that that isn’t how the world works, but there’s still a lot from that way of thinking that I’ve unconsciously carried with me into this next phase of life, and I’m still in the process of unpacking and exploring it all.

Luckily I’ve had a lot of support in doing that over the years from all of the wonderful people in my life. 37 was largely about getting my new place set up so that I could focus my energy on spending more time here with everyone I care about, and 38 really delivered on that promise. I didn’t take any big trips or learn a new language or anything like that; instead my calendar last year was a rich tapestry of coffees, happy hours, late-night walks, phone calls, group texts, hikes, dinners, organizing meetings, events, dinner parties, full-on parties, quick trips with friends, visiting and hosting family (including hosting my sisters, their partners, and my niece for a week and a half in early August, as part of a larger family visit that also included an aunt and two cousins and their families), and hosting out-of-town guests. I’ve supported the people in my life through hard times and received support from them when I’ve needed it, and I’ve gradually learned to wade more fully into the uncertainty, ambiguity, and discomfort that I’ve spent so much time trying to avoid for most of my adult life.

One big catalyst for a deeper relationship with uncertainty came in early December, when a woman named Lynne with whom I’d gone on two dates in the summer of 2016 reached out to tell me that my actions while we were making out at the end of our second date had caused her a lot of trauma over the course of the last two and a half years. We texted back and forth, and she asked me to write a public accountability post about it, which I did (you can read it on Facebook here, or on Medium here). The process of writing that post, and of being pushed by my friends to go deeper and be more vulnerable as I was writing it, forced me to let go of and re-evaluate some of the certainties on which I’ve based my conception of myself. I’ve spent a lot of the month and half since then reading books and listening to podcasts that various friends recommended to me when they reached out to talk about it, and the one that hit me the hardest was The Will to Change by bell hooks, the subtitle of which is “Men, Masculinity, and Love.” If you’re a man, I’d highly recommend getting a copy and reading it for yourself. It opened my eyes to the fact that the, as bell hooks calls it, “imperialist white-supremacist capitalist patriarchy” in which we live not only causes immense harm to women at the hands of men (as well as people of color at the hands of white people, and all of the various intersectional relationships between gender, race, and ability), but it also requires various forms of emotional self-mutilation from men in order to participate in the system and reap its benefits. I’d always prided myself on existing outside of that system, living by my own set of internal values and being able to tell right from wrong in any given moment—relying, again, on certainty about how the world works in order to move through it without compromise—but pulling on this thread of patriarchy and its effects on my life from an early age has shown me that what I’d mistaken for rejecting the system often looks, in hindsight, a lot more like having learned to internalize it in my own way so deeply that I convinced myself it was my idea to begin with. I don’t have any pat answers on this one, but my own complicated relationship to patriarchy is something I’m in the midst of exploring in much greater detail.

A key part of my journey this year, both before December and since then, has been learning to feel my feelings more fully and re-connect with my emotions in a way that I haven’t since my early adolescence. I consider it to be a marker of progress that when I was 38 I cried more than I have since my mom died of cancer when I was 27. I openly wept with my therapist and in front of friends for the first time; I talked about difficult topics with people I care about and saw that it only deepened our relationships; and I began to re-write some of my personal myths in ways that are less flattering but more honest, and that already feels like a more solid foundation on which to build the next decade of my life.

One of those personal myths is my attempt to travel all the way around the world without flying back when I was 24 and futureless, truly free upon the earth for the first and only time in my life. As I find myself facing the imminent end of my 30s and romanticizing the freedom of my youth I’ve been going back and re-reading my journals from The Big One, as I call it. And what I’ve found when I’ve gone back and read those journal entries is that even then, when I was crossing oceans and hitchhiking across a continent and having the adventure of a lifetime, I was still closed off from the world for the most part, passing through it without being part of it. The times when the light managed to get in through a crack, though—when my plans changed unexpectedly, when I didn’t know what the next step was going to be, when I was caught unaware and hit suddenly with the full force of an experience I wasn’t prepared for—those are the moments that I think back on when I think back on that time in my life. Hitchhiking for the first time. Hopping off a flatbed truck in the middle of rural Mozambique, realizing that there was no more onward transport and I was still 150 miles from my next destination, and setting off down a dirt path with one of my fellow travelers at his invitation, heading in the direction of his village on foot. Walking into the first yacht club I’d ever visited and seeing a flyer on the notice board that read simply, “Looking for two crew to sail to Cape Town. No experience necessary.” Et cetera. The best parts of this trip in which I was traveling around the world supposedly on my own terms and under my own power and according to my own plan were moments in which the plan broke down, I wasn’t in control, and I had no certainty whatsoever about what was going to happen next, when the closed-off little world that I’d been carefully cultivating broke open to the world. Those are the moments in which I’m most fully present in my own story, and in which I found what it was that I was looking for. Making space for more of them in my daily life has been an ongoing theme for multiple years now, and last year felt like I made some good progress on that front.

So that’s what I’m in the process of doing now—untangling what I actually want from what I’ve been conditioned to think that I or other people should want; feeling my feelings fully instead of suppressing them or hurrying past them; letting down my guard, my need for certainty, so that I can be more fully present both with myself and with everyone that I care about; and doubling down on spending the most precious resource that I have—my time—building and maintaining relationships with all the wonderful people I’m fortunate to have in my life.

There are other things that I planned to write about when I sat down to start on this post—starting up a regular, rigorous gym routine again for the first time in nearly a decade; taking over as board president at Seattle Public Theater; finally engaging the services of a financial planner to come up with clear budgets for both how I want to spend my money now and how I want to prepare for my eventual retirement; fabricating some kind of meaning out of the neatly overlapping timelines of the deep-bore tunnel’s approval and construction and my first 10 years in Seattle; how excited I was to get my first canvassers at my new place a few months ago, two college students out raising money for Greenpeace—but none of those things have been at the core of what it’s meant to me to be 38. Re-reading this piece I can see a lot of opportunities for edits, cuts for clarity or expansions on a theme or going back and taking the time to put in more of the emotion that I’m still learning to make space for both in my life and in my writing…but today’s a snow day in Seattle. There are good friends to hang out with and a little get-together tonight to get ready for, and I’ve already missed playing in the park with friends to get to this point, so it’s going to have to do in its current state.

My theme for 39, in case you’re interested, is “slow down.” I’ll let you know how it goes.

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