Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Reflections on the big 2-9.

Today is my birthday. My 29th. I have to admit, I was really not looking forward to this day for ages now.... but now that it's here, it actually doesn't seem so bad. I've never been afraid of getting older, wrinkles and gray hair to me are beautiful and I've never planned to try any stay young creams or dyes... of course, all that might change when the gray comes more often than one or two strands at a time, who knows?

I think the reason I've been dreading this day is because by this landmark point in life I thought I would be in a lot different situation. I'm a small town girl at heart, I'm the the only one in my immediate family to go to university (although one aunt and one uncle have, and my younger cousins are approaching or already working on their undergrads). Doing crazy things like going to grad school (twice!) or moving to far away places were never EVER part of my plans growing up. Where I come from, people marry their high school sweethearts and friends I grew up with have been working the same jobs now for more than a decade. People back home (including many family members) just don't understand moving, changing or how academia could possibly be appealing (and sometimes I agree with them).

In lots of ways, I feel very much behind in life. It's not so much about material things like owing a house or a car (though that would be nice, some day), but more in terms of feeling settled, "grown up", having a family, and knowing what I wanted for the future. Of course, if Husband and I had it the way we planned, we'd be parents by now, but some things don't always go according to plan. Things, like my whole way of life. Now, I don't want to be all melodramatic. I'm feeling reasonably accomplished and well traveled, I'm married to a wonderful man (who was NOT my high school sweetheart) and I've made some incredible friends along this crazy journey. But there are still days when I feel disappointed with my life, not unhappy exactly, but more conflicted because of the contrast in what I thought would be and what has actually come to pass. And I'm not even sure I would really want those things I feel like I'm missing...

I spoke with my mother recently about furniture (of all things!). She always dreamed, when she was younger, of having a four poster bed. They were all the rage when she got married, but at the time, my parents relied on hand-me-down furniture and couldn't afford to buy something new. She told me now she often thinks of re-doing her bedroom and how she thinks about that four poster bed. She's not even sure she wants one anymore, they're no longer in style and really not so desirable, but she feels like she SHOULD still want one because that's what she dreamed of having... and that's a bit how I feel about my life.

I dreamed of the small town home with several kids running around, a husband and friends I would have known my whole life, with my family and my in-laws close by and seeing my kids grow up in the same kind of environment I had. There would be a small town 9-5 job, or maybe I'd stay at home. Evenings and weekends would be full of BBQs with the neighbors, trips to the lake and local community volunteer groups. It's a far cry from my current life, living far away, with a husband that comes from even farther away, having no family close by, living in a rented apartment in the middle of a large city, going to concerts and operas and eating at restaurants with exotic foods I'd never even heard of before my 20s on the menu. And I think I just might suffocate in that small little walled-in life I had planned for myself. So why do I still mourn its loss? It's ok for plans to change, there are many points in life when you have to choose between two or more paths and backtracking to take the other just isn't possible.

I've always loved Robert Frost's poem, The Road Not Taken. Apparently there are two main interpretations to the poem, and I think it's appropriate in my life at the moment. Either, it's meant to be inspirational, telling people that on that journey down the road of life, to choose the fork in the path that is less traveled, be different, be an individual, break out of that small town mind set and you'll see how it's all so different in the end... or, it's ironic, about rationalizing our decisions (actually made about two things that were really, not so different from each other after all). One critic writes that the identical paths in the poem,
symbolize for us the nexus of free will and fate: We are free to choose, but we do not really know beforehand what we are choosing between.

As if we'll know later in life, when we look back that the choice won't have been so important, but that we'll still pretend, for the effect of the story, that we took that road less traveled... in other words, how we'll
need, later on in life, to rearrange the facts and inject a dose of Lone Ranger into the account.

I think we could think of science career decisions in a similar way. When an older mentor gives advice to someone young, about to make a career path decision, he might be like the narrator of the poem.
The speaker will not, in his old age, merely gather the youth about him and say, "Do what I did, kiddies. I stuck to my guns, took the road less traveled by, and that has made all the difference." Rather, he may say this, but he will sigh first; for he won't believe it himself. Somewhere in the back of his mind will remain the image of yellow woods and two equally leafy paths.

I find this interpretation interesting, and, in a strange way, much more inspiring that the typical interpretation.... It tells us that the
speaker knows that he will second-guess himself somewhere down the line--or at the very least he will wonder at what is irrevocably lost: the impossible, unknowable Other Path. But the nature of the decision is such that there is no Right Path--just the chosen path and the other path.

So, knowing that I have merely selected one of the paths, no better or worse than any other, I'll leave you with Robert Frost's words... interpret them as you will. I'm headed out for some food I can't even pronounce but know I will love!

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;

Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,

And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.


  1. Wonderful post (and poem) - the one great thing about dreams is they are connections to our past. Even if we no longer want them, just remembering we had that choice is freeing in a way.

    Happy 29th Birthday!!

  2. Happy Birthday!! This is a really great post, it really resonated with me. I'll be 29 sometime this year and I still feel like a child, like I'm still waiting for my "real" life to begin where I know what I'm doing, and where I'll be, for a long period of time, settled, and all that. And what I want when my real life begins...well, I don't know. It's so in flux.

    Hopefully soon, I'll know, and I'll be able to achieve it.

  3. Beautiful essay. I hear echoes of myself in your writing.

    And happy birthday!!!

  4. Happy birthday!

    I (kinda) understand how you feel - though I'm still in my mid-20s. A lot of my friends and people I grew up with are working "real" jobs and have "real" lives - they own their homes, they're getting engaged/having kids, they take their 2 weeks vacation every year ... and I'm still in grad school, still not sure what kind of career I want, still renting an apartment, still in debt, and nowhere near getting married or having kids.

    All that to say you're not alone in feeling the way you do. Just because you're 29 now doesn't mean you HAVE to be at any particular stage of your life. Age is just a number.

    Enjoy your day!

  5. Happy Birthday! This is a wonderful post and made me feel not so alone.