SPOILER ALERT: For those of you lucky enough to be younger than your late 20s, shit gets real. Don’t read if you don’t want to ruin it for yourself. For those of you already in your late 20s and older, well, you’ll know what I mean.
There was a lot of crying this year. Not that I wasn’t warned. One friend said, “You know it’s your Saturn return, right?” I, being only a Sunday-paper-horoscope-and comics-reader, didn’t know. I’d never heard of this phenomenon before. “Oh, yeah,” she said. “It’s when Saturn returns to the same point in the sky that it occupied when you were born.”
Apparently, this is a very sensitive time in a person’s life that my friend described as being turned upside down and shook. Real hard. To oversimplify, some stuff (habits, personality traits, beliefs, dreams, etc.) sticks, but everything else gets trashed, like some kind of astrological menstruation. And man, do you feel it, like a painfully conscious death.
* * *
When I was about 7, my family vacationed at the Jersey shore with my cousins, aunt, and uncle. I was in Heaven. One evening, we were going for a walk on the beach, as was the end-of-the-day tradition. I loved that part of vacation days, when the heat is still trapped in the sand, but you need a sweater. We’d feed the gulls, have kite fights, and run from the encroaching tide. But on that night, I stopped at the end of the driveway as the group continued on.
My aunt noticed I’d fallen behind and asked, “What’s wrong? Don’t you want to go?”
I said “Yes, I do…but I can’t.” I was tearful, and she looked concerned.
“Why,” she asked.
“Because…I have growing pains.”
And it was true. My arms and legs ached, and it hurt to move them sometimes. Whenever I complained about this to my mom, she’d say “It’s just growing pains.” And they’d fade and I’d get taller, and when they’d return, they weren’t so frightening because I understood what they were for, that this had to happen. That I needed to grow.
* * *
This year was the emotional equivalent of growing pains. Yet I don’t think I got emotionally taller. Instead, it was like going through puberty, the first day of kindergarten, and being punished for something your brother did all at the same time: confusing, torturous, and just downright not fair. But the frustrating part was that nothing was outwardly happening to me, which made me feel even worse—and a little crazy.
I’d tear up over situations as benign as someone making fun of me for being pale. I’d run to the bathroom sporadically during work and sit Indian-style on the toilet with the lid down, until I could pull it together. It was overly sentimental and dramatic scenes from bad movies: slumping against the tile wall in the shower and finishing washing in the water that pooled beneath me. It was a melodrama to the most pathetic degree, and I felt like a marionette whose strings were constantly plucked and pulled by pure emotion. Then along comes 29, like the relief of dusk to a bad day.
Not that it ends here. If Saturn is in fact wreaking havoc in her path, she supposedly won’t be done until I’m 30. And then what?
Part of what hit me so hard was the realization that technically I am happier than I ever have been: I’m independent, living in the city of my choice. I’m extremely happy in my personal relationships. I not only have a job, but one that enables me to do more or less what I love. Yet, I am not ecstatic.
I am socked in by the monotony of day-to-day living. I am uncertain of myself. I am terrified that I am not doing something right. It comes down to the fear that this is as good as it gets. And while it is good, and I’m thankful for my life most days, it’s still a struggle. The older I get, the less I seem to understand the human condition, but the more enmeshed in it I become. When comes wisdom?
* * *
By the time my mother was 29, she was married with a two-year-old (me), a house, and another kid on the way. I have not known her to be anything but happy, gracious, and pulled together at all times. And here I am, just one extremely overgrown fetus wanting to crawl back into the comforting void of the womb.
Every paycheck feels like it came from a birthday card, and I still think of it in terms of how many pieces of penny candy I can buy. Before the next one arrives, thankfully more frequently than annually, I am genuinely mystified by what happened to the last. And I think to myself in my mother’s voice: “Well, you shouldn’t have spent it all on candy.” Although, my mom would never actually say that—she loves candy.
There’s no neat little moral to wrap this up. I’m sorry. I’d love to Mr. Rogers-assure you that everything is wonderful, you are special, and the world is magical. You are of course, and it is. But that’s just one side of it. And I guess that’s the takeaway if there is one. Just as we breathe, whatever life is expands and contracts. It shivers and quakes. It will rise and fall in time.
Maybe getting older simply means coming to understand that growing pains hurt, but they’re for something. And as excruciating as it can be at times, you are growing.