Today is my 30th birthday.
I remember when 30 sounded old. Frankly, it still sounds old.
Sometimes I think about the child I was, and I wonder if it was actually me. I wonder if there’s any continuity between that person and this person. I wonder if she’d be disappointed in me.
Most children want to be something when they grow up, it seems. It’s something we emphasize early on. You are identified by a profession, by a marriage, by being a parent. What do you do? Are you married? Do you have kids?
When I was 6, I essentially wanted to be Carl Sagan (although I don’t think I knew who that was). When I was 8, I wanted to be a paleontologist. Those were passing fancies, and the truth is, I never had a clear idea of what I wanted out of life. I didn’t think about it. I didn’t think about getting married or having kids.
I just assumed I’d have a job, any job, and that maybe I’d get married. But it was never anything substantial. There’s that famous John Lennon quote: “When I went to school, they asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up. I wrote down ‘happy’. They told me I didn’t understand the assignment, and I told them they didn’t understand life.” I don’t think I even thought about being happy. To this day, it’s not a word I understand.
But then, I don’t think I understand life either.
If you knew me when I was in grade school, you knew me as the smart kid. But I wasn’t the ambitious kid. I did my work. I questioned the rules. Still today, I quietly and unassumingly push people’s boundaries—usually ontological boundaries, because what there is, isn’t what there is, or, rather, it isn’t what it is in the way people think it is.
But I don’t know why I care.
The truth is, I just like to think about things.
The truth is, I still naively believe in truth.
It’s not a coincidence that the things that fascinated me as a child—outer space, dinosaurs—are things that are very large and very far away (spatially, temporally). I think I’ve always lived my life from an observational distance. And sometimes I evaluate this as a bad thing, but I think at this point, it’s just who I am.
There’s a question I ask myself sometimes. Is it better than it used to be?
And the answer is almost always ‘no’.
Let me tell you a story:
In 2004, when I was living in Philadelphia, I was miserable—not the kind of miserable that one normally associates with law school, but the kind of miserable one associates with severe depression. I moved to Philadelphia to run away and to disconnect myself from everyone and everything that I knew, because I couldn’t face my life anymore. I didn’t want to start over. I just wanted to disappear and be erased. For a while I attended my classes, and every day when I left campus, I would take the Broad Street line to the transfer and wait for the Market Street line to come. As I waited, I would inch close to the edge of the subway platform, and I would think about how easy it would be to just jump down onto the tracks and wait for the train to obliterate me.
One day I got an email from an old friend that said, “You need to get A Ghost is Born.” I was so out of touch with everything that once brought me pleasure, I had no idea Wilco had released an album. So one day, I cut class to go to Virgin Records downtown, and I bought A Ghost is Born on CD.
And I listened. And, of course I didn’t like it because even though I consider Wilco my favorite band, I never like their albums on first listen. But I kept listening anyway, because the rest of my music was equally as unappealing to me at the time, and I just needed a distraction. I needed something, anything, to buzz in my ear when I made my 45-minute commute. Every day I would stand on the subway platform and think about jumping, but every day I would at least have music playing in my ears. They say music is the soundtrack of your life, and in hindsight, I wonder if I was looking for a death song.
But one day, just as I reached the platform and was doing what I did every day—looking down at the tracks, seeing the light in the distance from the approaching train, thinking about jumping and ending it all—I heard Jeff Tweedy’s gritty voice in my ear singing, “what would we be without wishful thinking.”
And I stepped back.
With those seven simple words, even though I was miserable and wanted to be erased, I knew there was a tiny part of me that still wished it would get better. And if I was capable of having some idea of hope, then I was capable of climbing out of the dark hole that was trying to swallow me every minute of every day.
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, music (and art in all its forms) is love, because it connects us to each other and makes us feel less alone in the world, even when we feel so lost that we cry in the middle of crowded subway platforms.
Without wishful thinking, I wouldn’t be alive.
And so I still wish. And I still live with an idea of “better.”
I’ve heard a lot of people tell me that one’s 30s are better than their 20s. That as you get older, you get more comfortable in who you are. That the self-consciousness that makes you feel uncomfortable and judged and wondering if you’re doing things right that’s ever-present from adolescence really does start to slough off you.
The thing is, I’ve actually always been comfortable with who I am. I’ve always liked myself. And this is the thing that is hard to explain to other people, because I have been hideously depressed, and there have been many occasions where I’ve said that I want to be someone else, anyone else, to not exist. But I don’t mean it the way people think I do.
I never didn’t like who I was when I was by myself. I just didn’t like how who I was seemed incongruent with everyone and everything else—how I never fit. I don’t fit neatly into or feel comfortable in common social institutions. I didn’t even fit right in academic philosophy, which is full socially awkward people who have been disenfranchised by their intellects.
People never seem to understand what I’m talking about, they rarely understand my meaning because they fixate too much on words, but when I’m with myself there’s an implicit understanding there with my thoughts that isn’t hindered by the shackles of language.
As I’ve gotten older, I’ve gotten better at pretending I fit into the superficial institutions that people think are important. I have people in my life I don’t have to fake another self in order to be around them. I try not to associate “better” with things, with more money. I don’t think about “better” in terms of jumping in front of a train or not anymore. I don’t even think about “better” in terms of idealistic (reactionary) political views that make people bemoan the fate the world.
I don’t know what better means anymore, but I can’t seem to stop asking myself the question.
So far, adulthood for me has been a series of giving up on things. On taking the potential I had as a child and killing the possibility instead of actualizing it. I used to draw. I used to dance. I used to do all the things that are basically impossible to earn a living doing. And I stopped doing them.
And I wonder if it would be better if I could do it all over.
I wonder if it would be better if I could get some of my childhood back.
I spent a long time trying to distance myself from childhood, because I don’t like thinking of myself as dependent and ignorant and irrational, but I’m still all of those things, just in other ways. And I’ve been thinking more about 6-year-old Heidi and 8-year-old Heidi, and I’m not so different from her. I’ve never been different from her.
The way I think, the way my mind works, is to keep going out and out until the picture no longer fits in the frame, and when you think about it there is a commonality between me today and me then.
It’s why I like dinosaurs. Why I like the stars. Why I like truth. Because all these things are bigger than me, so much bigger than me it doesn’t matter that I’m uncomfortable with my humanity and with expressing myself. Because words and rules and rituals are things that man has made, and they’ll never quite be adequate. I’ve found comfort many times in looking up into the night sky, in knowing that I’m a part of a vast and indifferent universe that isn’t good or bad, because I always fit into the bigger picture. There’s always a place for me there if I just change my perspective.
And if I can just remember that, then the answer to my question will always be the same. It can’t be better than it used to be, but it can’t be worse, because I’m asking the wrong question entirely.
Turning 30 doesn’t mean anything.
And that’s what’s important.