When all else fails, retreat to nature. I don't know if anyone's ever said that, but someone should have. It's solid advice. I'm wound tightly. After a full day at home with my children -- a day I loved and deeply enjoyed -- I began to feel that tug to retreat, to escape. And this is one of the things I love most about my husband. He understands me and never judges. I knew I needed to flee to quiet the rolling storms. I knew that would happen in nature. He helped me toss the essential camping items in the car, kissed me, and gave his blessing for me to take myself camping. Alone.
As with many things in life, I arrived less than prepared. I didn't anticipate that I wouldn't be able to purchase firewood at the campground. The mosquito armies were relentless. In a matter of minutes I was covered in giant, red weals. I was without bug spray. When one feels the compulsion to flee, bug spray is an afterthought. I didn't anticipate the misogynistic attitudes of both the park ranger and the campground host; they were seemingly caught of guard by my ability to pitch a simple tent, by my ability to build my own fire (even if I had to be resourceful and fuel it with pages torn from my son's Reconciliation book, praise the Lord).
In so many ways, the whole experience -- the urge to escape, arriving in nature to be met with a series of other unanticipated assaults, and finding the beauty anyway -- echoes the peaks and valleys of my 33rd year. It would have been easy to throw in the towel, to pack up, let the mosquitoes win, give in. But I didn't. I visited a nearby gas station. I procured firewood. I bought bug spray (it didn't do much to stave off my assailants). I regrouped. And then there was the beauty. After a bit of rain, a rainbow. The clouds transformed into fluffy swaths of cotton candy, imbued with oranges and pinks. The breeze enveloped and reminded me to breathe. The fire crackled. Birds chirped. I found clarity. That night was, perhaps, the beginning of my reflection on my year. Yes, there were elements that poked and pricked, there was some unexpected pain, but there were great rewards too.
I turned 34 last week. I've never experienced any turmoil over aging. In fact, I've always wanted to be older than I am. I'm jealous of my friends who have gray hair. I've never longed for an age that has passed. I have to be careful, however, not to wish away my youth -- to be present now. There were certain years that seemed to hold greater promise -- years I was anxious to reach for no reason other than because I'd attached some significance to them. 17, 22, 25, 30, 33. But I don't have another number in my mind; there isn't another milestone I'm anxious to reach. Maybe 67. But the others have come in fairly close succession.
I'm not sure what it was about 33, but I apotheosized it to such an extent that it was only a matter of time before it fell shattering from its pedestal. 33 was the epitome of balance. It was about reason and centeredness. It was about knowing myself. It was a settling, a grounding -- no longer aimless and wandering, but intentionally and pleasantly rooted. It was a sense of purpose and creation. It was the embodiment of contentedness. A long-awaited arrival.
Those who grew up Catholic know there are lessons, stories, and histories so deeply engraved on our inner walls that we can't ever shake them. Maybe that's part of it for me. Jesus was 33 when he was crucified. Maybe it was something to do with wanting to be reflective of one's maker.
At any rate, 33 was anything but venerable, anything but balanced. In fact, it was a bit of an upending. 33 was oddly and disappointingly reminiscent of 21. And who wants to be 21 again? 21 was uncertain, insecure, inexperienced, ego simultaneously looming and fragile, searching for a sense of self and one's place in the world. No. 33 wasn't supposed to be like 21 at all, and yet...
On the surface, I suppose 33 was a failure. I often felt more lost and out of control than I can remember ever feeling (though time has a way of dulling the sharpness of experience). I cried more in the last year -- not just tears, but body-wracking sobbing -- with more frequency than I can recall. I was cruel to myself in many ways. My judgement was often clouded. I felt marooned at work. I contemplated calling it quits on my marriage. I invested energy in people who drained and didn't fill. I misread more often than I got it right. I questioned whether I possessed any value, any worth in the world. I dredged up many demons who were never dormant exactly, but caged.
It's easy to see all the failures. But cliche as it is, I steady myself: never a failure, always a lesson. There was a great deal of success and accomplishment over the last year, too. Friendships came to the forefront. They blossomed and were strengthened. I made several new friends who have been paramount as I've attempted to sort through my messes. As frightening as change is, I took the plunge. My dear friend, Allison, provided a beautiful balm from Marjorie Leader: "Go now, you are ready to go. I know, leavings are lonely, but growing is only a larger kind of living. The world, my sweet, like any other womb, is round."
If I'm honest, I don't want to live a predictable, comfortable life. I want a life of excitement and surprise and experience. And I'm doing that. I'm uprooting in order to do that. This year, and the accumulation of many years before it, have nudged me. So I'm taking the leap into the unknown.
And marriage. Marriage is a choice we have to make every day. We have a tendency, I think, to make our relationships with our children the most important in our lives, especially when they are young. Those relationships are the ones we feed. But when I always put my children at the forefront, I starve my relationship with my husband. I starve the relationship with myself, too. And it's an easy pattern to fall into. Matt and I had been languishing in some kind of torpor, I think. And it could have gone in 3 ways, as I see it: quit, languish, or lean in. We chose to lean in. The embers were still there, still burning. We just had to fan the flames a bit. We needed to remember why we chose one another. We needed to commit time. We have to be honest, ask for what we need, and strive to provide it. Though 33 was painful in many different ways, especially in regard to relationships and a sense of my personal worth and value, I know that Matt and I wouldn't be where we are now -- a really good place -- if I hadn't experienced those dark moments. Peaks and valleys. Always peaks and valleys.
So I'm heading into 34 in much the same way I feel after a difficult run or a challenging yoga practice. There is strength and a sense of accomplishment that comes from enduring, from not giving up, from pushing through the pain. My friend Lindsay and I made vision boards the other night. We focused in on what we want to manifest in our lives. It hangs in a place that I see many times throughout the day. It reminds me of what is most important for me right now: meaningful and reciprocal relationships, whole health, and writing as a means of knowing. Those are the places I need to direct my energy. I trust that the rest will work itself out.
33 may not have encompassed all I'd hoped it would, but I think it certainly provided the groundwork. 3 plus 4 is 7. Maybe 34 will be the luckiest year yet. Maybe 33 did the work.