A Letter to My Thirties

Dear Thirties,

You are a centrifugal force to be reckoned with: this, I concede from the outset. My twenties, inaugurated at a Madison bar with a fake ID, a naïve rapture at the eloquence of History PhD students, and nary a headache following quantities of alcohol that would now waylay me for days, have nothing on you.

I have felt your steady creep, your spreading shadow, since twenty-six, and now you seem to butt into every idle moment on a Mexican bus, every afternoon run, every contemplative midnight email post beers and nachos. Your questions dog and dog, and I am writing in the hopes that you will have sympathy with my inability as of yet to answer with any calm, assured definitiveness.

As you and your discerning glare must know, I have spent my twenties mostly poor (I mean this in that relative, privileged way that middle-class Americans mean “poor,” with a tinge of wistful romanticism), mostly happy, and mostly doing what I want and have chosen to do. I’ve cultivated numerable campfire-worthy tales to tell, learned several languages, lived lots of places, most for at least six months at a time, and towards the downward denouement of each learning curve felt a vague unsettledness, where stasis starts to chafe against the need for change and movement.

In the beginning, you see, I run in the dusty park with the Mexican men and watch the blue-pink clouds rise over the cerros and it is pure rhapsody. I know nothing, and have everything to learn. Churros are euphoria. The winding road up to the trout farm in the Oaxacan Sierra is prickling with sensory details: the wood smoke, the pine, the forested canyons tumbling down to the shiny populated valley. And then months go by, and I make friends, and I know at least ten expressions involving huevos and I am sitting in a bar alone on a Saturday afternoon and that restlessness emerges eerie and sure as the green heat before a storm.

An idea, a reel of flashing possibilities. Shit. I want to move to China.

And the next week, I have a job and my Mexican boyfriend begins to realize just who and what he’s dealing with.

In the beginning, I run through the riverside park past the old ladies doing Tai Chi and the men writing calligraphy with fat brushes dipped in water and it is pure rhapsody. I know nothing, and have everything to learn. Dumplings are euphoria. The bike ride from our apartment in Chaoyangmen to Ghost Street is spiked with sensory details: the dozens of other jostling handlebars, the hutongs crammed with laundry and steam and vendors, the perpetual gray and the smell of factories and soy sauce and spice. And then months go by, and I can order a hot pot with chrysanthemum leaves and lotus root, and my students have at least managed to imitate a half-decent thesis, and I am riding my bike towards Dongzhimen station counting down the days until I will begin again, but where…

Thus the pattern of my poor, privileged twenties repeats: new continent, new curve, and I rub my palms together in anticipation of the climb from cluelessness to relative, partial, childlike understanding. Even marriage has not altered this trajectory: my marriage in and of itself is the experience of a foreign culture, and I am fortunate to have a husband who allows himself to be dragged around the world in pursuit of novelty, or in fugue from banality.

But Thirties, you loom. And in the past several years the restlessness has come adulterated with doubt: doubt about how long these cycles can repeat before they themselves become rutted in the dullness and stasis they repeatedly run from. Doubt about whether banality is inevitable and reconcilable, whether novelty is really always novel, and whether change is escape or renovation.

And then suddenly on Sunday morning I am thinking about babies.

And then suddenly on Sunday morning I am thinking a PhD, a tenure-track job: security, health insurance, creative freedom. Maybe near the mountains somewhere.

And then suddenly on Sunday morning I am thinking a cabaña on the small plot of land Jorge’s parents own in Guelatao: rainstorms watched from the front porch, the countryside, long quiet evenings spent reading.

This is your cruel and bizarrely thrilling alchemy, Thirties. Prenatal vitamins are the new exotic. A plot of land, a garden, rootedness are the new year-in-China, the new assistanceship-on-a-French-isle. Suddenly the idea of waking up each morning to water the snapdragons, to watch a barefoot toddler waddle around the sun-shot yard have taken on that possible-but-incredulous sheen of a new country.

But one is not cleanly a metaphor for the other, which is why I hesitate. A house and a baby – and perhaps this goes without saying for people who have not spend a decade living entirely according to travel paradigms and metaphors – are not another country in which to flit, land, linger, and leave. And this is where I stumble, because I don’t know how to stay and commit to a non-temporary plan, don’t know what this will feel like and what weight it will carry, whereas I know very well the particular emotional and practical shape of landing in utter unfamiliarity and working my way into understanding, loving and resenting, moving on and missing.

I don’t know, Thirties, if this vision of rootedness is simply a temptation you’re dangling to test me – a Devil of Settling whispering “wouldn’t it be great for your children to ride bikes around a clean tree-lined street and visit your parents every Sunday?” – or if I have truly grown tired of the familiar pattern of jumping from plan to plan, experience to experience, and realized that now the real challenge is not buying two hard sleeper tickets at the Guangzhou train station but making a deeper shift in the structure of my life.

I wrote an email to a friend recently in which I said I was thinking of one of two things: a baby, or a yearlong trip through Africa. The latter is winning out mostly because my husband finds it slightly less terrifying than fatherhood. (I have discovered that the key to inspiring my homebody of a Mexican partner towards stressful, relentlessly novel frontiers is threatening him with the ultimate in constancy and stability.)

“Only you,” the friend wrote, “would face that choice.”

And I felt a little shine of pride, a pleased flutter of the ego at the thought of my exceptionalism before I remembered that my friend, too, and pretty much every woman I know – mostly career travelers, sure, but also less internationally-inclined women – is facing something like this choice.

It is perhaps one I have constructed for myself because it so starkly represents the difference between who I have been and what I have done in my twenties and what I am feeling in a very ambiguous and emergent way that you, Thirties, might like me to be and do. It represents the difference between the kind of cycle and novelty I know and love so well and a different kind of cycle and novelty that at once beguiles, haunts, and repels. Is embracing Africa over Baby, I wonder, a valiant defiance of entropy or something like the sad denial of a forty-year-old doing a keg stand in a college kid’s basement?

When I ask these questions I am asking myself about the nature of the life that lies ahead once you, Thirties, have stormed in: how much of who I was in my Twenties is who I am, and how much of who I was is simply the expression of those searching, rootless years.

The other parallel choice you’re laying on thick, you’re really driving like a stake into this last year, is whether I will wind up in Mexico or the United States. Like the question of Baby or Africa, this one comes down to whether I can and want to continue to live the kind of life – very close to the bone emotionally and experientially and financially – I have lived in Mexico and elsewhere overseas or whether I am getting, well, old. Old in that way Americans mean old: cranky about having to dump a bucket of cold water over my head when there’s a drought in the valley, fussy about the ancient diesel-spewing busses blasting salsa at 8 a.m., lusty over Teflon cookware. In need of stability…

…and yet not that much. Two years in the U.S. after six years abroad have taught me fear and loathing of insurance payments, leases, gas, electric, taxes, liability, forms and bills and forms and bills and all of the immobilizing drudgery that a life in the (expensive, intensely ordered, relentlessly capitalist) first world can entail. But they’ve also taught me how much I have missed my family, seeing my niece and nephew grow up, microbrews, Cheez-its, Indian delivery paired with Mad Men, American sarcasm and camaraderie, an oven and a functional shower, and four distinct seasons.

Yet the second I land in Mexico and feel that dry raspy heat and that tableau of tumultuous sky there is nothing like it. The heights of fundamental happiness, of being-present-in-the-world, that I reach in the U.S. do not even approximate what I feel here when I get caught up in some everyday moment. A late afternoon ride to Sam’s Club – when it starts to rain, and the light obtains a transcendental quality appropriate to the swell of orchestral music at a movie’s climax, and the pinwheel colors of murals dance on the crumbling walls – has an element of soaring awareness that is rare and precious in the U.S. But at the same time the depths of frustration at seeing dogs beaten and left on 100-degree rooftops, at the petulant neighbors blocking the street with one after another brand-new SUV draped in banners for the PRI, at the knowledge that if I am robbed or raped I will have no recourse whatsoever to justice, have no equivalent in the U.S., where things tend to linger in a safe experiential middle ground.

Living here forces me to be either a better person or an expatriate asshole repulsive to myself. There is not much hyperbole in that statement. I like to think that I achieve the former more than fifty percent of the time, at least when I haven’t just watched my husband kill a cat-sized rat with a broom handle or waited three hours watching telenovelas for the dermatologist who never showed.

When Mexico is at its best, it embodies a human warmth and a sense of absurdity, abandon, and vivid aliveness I cannot find in the U.S.

The third dermatologist I tried, who was actually present in his office when I arrived, invited me on a pilgrimage to Juquila as he was cutting a mole out of my back. “We walk for ten days,” he said. “You should write about it!” I said sure, that’d be great. He was a runner, and when I told him my marathon time, he said, “Híjole, you run like a man!”

When he was finished stitching me up he squeezed my calf and said, “I thought you were so skinny, but you have some bigass legs!” These are the things I love, the everyday absurdities and surprises, the informality, the constant series of stories.

I love and hoard these stories but then, after I leave the dermatologist’s office and am carrying my cut-out moles to the lab in an old aspirin bottle labeled “Menkedick” with a piece of Scotch tape, I wonder, what if I really did get cancer? We could never afford it on our meager bohemian salaries; I don’t have health insurance here. When we do have kids, will we educate them in Mexico’s abysmal public schools? Will we ever be able to leave them an inheritance to experience anything like the freedom I’ve enjoyed if we raise them in Oaxaca on a shoestring budget, pursuing with dogged purity our not-so-lucrative dreams of creative nonfiction, of documentary photography?

And more grandly, is it possible here or there, North or South of the border, to resist the inertia of rootedness and still find stability? What will I think of myself, where will I be, Thirties, if by the time you have dwindled and are about to disappear I still have no children and no roots and have pursued change and challenge and novelty with the same dogma? These are questions that you scatter in the path along which I once skipped blissfully ignorant of five-year plans and savings accounts and permanent residence and consideration of infrastructure beyond the corner store’s collection of exotic potato chips and the price of beer and noodles.

Thirties, I first glimpsed you in the Llano Park four years ago, when I turned twenty-six. Maybe I was hungover and suffering from some sort of resultant tunnel vision: it was probably sunny and hot, and kids were probably spraying each other with the cans of foam that apathetic señoras sell near the fountains, and young guys dressed in outrageous full-body Bon Ice pantsuits, like adult-sized onesies decorated with orange and pink penguins, were probably offering me popsicles, so the whole setting was without a doubt surreal. But nonetheless I remember the vision clearly, and accept it as real and not hallucinatory. I remember seeing the swaying tops of the ficus trees and thinking, my life is going to get narrower at some point, inevitably, and perhaps that is not a bad thing. And that is when I saw you peek a mischievous eyeball over the apogee of my Twenties, and giggle.

How to make peace with this narrowing, its shape and structure and very inevitability, is the issue haunting all of my friends right now. There are babies being made everywhere, it seems, just as a few years ago one wedding announcement eagerly leapt on the giddy heels of another. I have defied what I’ve perceived as the gloom and bullshit of the set Life Stages: the College Party Years, your-best-times-dude-before-the-real-world-sets-in; the Real World of the early twenties when one in theory shaves one’s beard and kowtows to a decade’s worth of car payments; the Realer World of marriage and babies and responsibilities talked about with a rueful inexorableness over the rare beer and pizza away from the stifling monotony of home; the Paunchy Complacent Stability of the nest, the view from the other end of the kaleidoscope of the cycle starting anew.

But I wonder if my own stages aren’t starting to look a little stale and pathetic in and of themselves: apply for a random job/scholarship/master’s degree, move to a new country, wander around stupefied and googly-eyed for several months, get bitter and frustrated, calm into acceptance and satisfaction, grow restless, endure a bout of intense financial insecurity and ambiguity regarding the future, repeat. And repeat and repeat.

For how long, you ask, my Thirties, for how long? You cock an eyebrow, mocking perhaps, it’s hard to tell, when I ask you – Baby or Africa? Mexico or the U.S.?

I can’t discern if you’re bluffing, if you are really the barrel-chested shift in perspective and lifestyle I have both feared and been attracted to at twenty-seven, twenty-eight, and now, twenty-nine. Maybe you look a lot like the Twenties do, but a new faith, a realigned internal compass, has softened that hard-searching edge and replaced it with something steadier. Maybe not a house. Maybe not a baby. Maybe not even fixedness in one particular country. Something. But what is it?

That’s the question, Thirties, that you dangle, and with a wink refuse to answer.





  • girlbandgirl says:

    I enjoyed this letter and found a lot of truth in it, especially the part about waking up into a thought about babies. I am 32. My husband is in the Navy and we are going to transfer to Pearl Harbor. My first daydream about Hawaii was playing in the surf with my imaginary babies, dipping their squashed peach bottoms into the surf and sand, like Shake n’ Bake. The thought was so immediate it startled me. Not luaus, or surfing, or hikes in volcanic landscapes, but sandy little buns. What happened?

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